Burning season: Even midnight sun can damage skin

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

Ah, the land of the midnight sun! There are all kinds of outdoor activities to enjoy. And while more sun means having more fun, it also calls for preventing skin damage caused by the nice, warm rays.

Tanning lotions and sunscreens are placed in highly visible areas in the stores. Each container of lotion carries an "SPF rating" number.

On your way to a picnic, you reach for a "No. 15" lotion. But your friend insists, "No way, you need at least a 30, or better yet, use this total sunblock." What do the SPF numbers mean? Anchorage pharmacist Mike Howard of Carrs/Safeway Pharmacies said the skin protection factor (SPF) number indicates how long it would take you to burn while using that particular lotion, as opposed to unprotected skin. So if you use "No. 15" lotion, it takes 15 times longer before your skin starts to burn.

The American Cancer Society gives some recommendations for safety in the sun:

Protect young children from over-exposure.

They are especially sensitive to the sun's rays, and their skin may burn more quickly than an adult's.

Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, with SPF rating of 15 or higher.

Wear wide-brim hats and loose-fitting clothing that covers the skin, if you are concerned about too much exposure.

Take breaks away from the sun during peak UV hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Use enough sunscreen. A dollop about the size of a quarter is an average amount for an adult's face and neck.

If you're going swimming, use a waterproof sunscreen lotion, and reapply it after an hour in the water. Reapply sunscreen after bathing or exercise where you may sweat some off.

Does a "No. 30" lotion give twice as much protection? The answer is negative.

A higher SPF number does not net the amount of protection that people believe they are getting, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"SPF 15 blocks about ninety percent of the sun's harmful rays," Howard said. "But with SPF 30, you only gain two to four percent more blockage." The confusion in SPF ratings is due to "marketing zeal" that produced some inflated and misleading numbers, he said.

Sunburn is caused by shorter ultraviolet wavelengths, called UVB. But the longer wavelengths, UVA, can penetrate and damage skin at deeper levels, even if the skin feels cool.

That's why it's good to use a sunscreen lotion any time you'll be outdoors for a while, Howard said.

Sun-worshipers need to be aware of "higher UV situations" such as open water, sandy beaches, or in the snow, where the rays are reflected. In the mountains, UV levels increase by about 8 percent with every 1,000 meters in altitude, according to the World Health Organization.

The FDA cautions consumers to use good judgment regarding products bearing claims such as "sunblock," "waterproof" or "all-day protection." The term "waterproof" means the lotion is water-resistant, but it will eventually wash off, Howard said.

While most people know the difference between sun tanning lotions and sunscreen, the FDA now requires a warning statement on products designed to prepare the skin for sun tanning. It reads, "This product does not contain sunscreen and does not protect against sunburn. Repeated exposure of unprotected skin while tanning may increase the risk of skin aging, skin cancer, and other harmful effects to the skin, even if you do not burn."

If you're sensitive to the chemicals in sunscreen, Howard suggests asking for a non-chemical sunblock at your local pharmacy. Zinc oxide and "A-fil cream" are two that he mentioned.

Remember your sunscreen before heading outdoors for sports, work and recreation. Be safe and have fun in the summer sun.

Ann Marina is a freelance writer living in Kenai.

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