We love sunshine. A little bit of color, we think, won’t hurt us. Sunlight energizes our bodies and radiates a glow into our skin that we equate with health and living the good life. “Sunlight is essential to the health of your bones and your skin,” says Stephanie Tourles, a licensed aesthetician and author of Naturally Healthy Skin: Tips and Techniques for a Lifetime of Radiant Skin (Storey Publishing; 1999; $14.95). “The skin uses the sun’s rays to create vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium.” She also notes that small amounts of sun exposure can help heal eczema, psoriasis, and acne and help to make you “feel good all over.”
I have always thought that there is never a bad day spent at the beach. However, in 2000, some 1.3 million Americans were diagnosed with some form of skin cancer, and the Skin Cancer Foundation, in New York City; has reported that that number is increasing annually. It’s clear that skin cancer resulting from overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays and to the ultraviolet radiation found in tanning beds has become epidemic. What’s more surprising is that medical researchers believe that fewer than 15 percent of Americans regularly use sunscreen. How much sun is harmful to your body? That largely depends on your skin type and heredity, but regardless of either, protection is no longer an option–it’s a necessity.
The oft-repeated adage about the value of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure may sound like a cliche, but in the case of sun exposure nothing comes closer to the truth. The best way to avoid the effects of sun damage is simply to prevent overexposure. Tourles believes that 15 to 20 minutes a day is the maximum amount of unprotected sun exposure we should allow ourselves-and even then we should be careful to time it right, before 10 A.M. or after 4 P.M.
Many of us spend our time outdoors during peak sun times-the hours of the day when the sun’s ultraviolet rays are at their strongest-and for this we need full protection. The best sun protection is to wear long-sleeved shirts, full-length trousers, wide-brimmed floppy hats (visored baseball caps don’t protect the neck and tops of the ears), and wraparound sunglasses, but for most of us, covering up in the heat of the day or during rigorous physical activity is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Tourles prefers a natural titanium-dioxide-based sunscreen and encourages her clients to try one, especially if they have sensitive skin. (For people with sensitive skin she recommends always first doing a “patch test”: Apply the sunscreen to your wrist for a day or two and be on the lookout for signs of irritation.)
Tourles suggests applying one to one and a half ounces of fragrance-free (added fragrances can irritate the skin) sunscreen of sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 a half hour before going outdoors, whether the sun is shining or not-clouds afford no protection from some sun rays (the so-called UVA rays). “There is only an incremental increase of protection between a 15 SPF and a 35 SPF,” says Tourles. “You are not getting that much more benefit.” And be aware that using a higher-SPF sunscreen does not mean that you can stay in the sunlight longer or go longer without refreshing your sunscreen. Liberally reapplying 15-SPF sunscreen throughout the day or after swimming or sweating is the key. The American Cancer Society points out that a family of four should go through an entire four-ounce bottle of sunscreen during a day at the beach. Children and babies (six months and younger) need extra protection. Tourles advises using a waterproof sunscreen for kids who scramble in and out of the water a lot. And at higher altitudes everyone needs extra protection, since the air is thinner higher up and burns are more likely.
What if the sunscreen wears off and you forget to reapply it? Time-tested ways of easing the pain and aggravation of sunburns include a 10- to 20-minute soak in a cool tub of water to which two cups of apple-cider vinegar have been added. You could also try slathering cool aloe vera gel directly on the burned area throughout the day-or try a compress of cotton pads soaked in cold strong black tea. Bear in mind that, while all these might help ease the sting, they are no substitute for sensible precautions.