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October 26, 2001

Saving Your Own Skin

Are you using adequate protection against sunburn and skin cancer?

What would you think of an X-ray technician who laughingly refused to wear a lead vest while equipment sprayed radiation about the room? Imagine such a person saying, "I'll use protective clothing when my hair begins to fall out."
Sound crazy? Of course it does - yet fishermen, golfers and other outdoor enthusiasts blithely ignore threats from the sun's destructive radiation, dismissing the use of sun block with comments such as, "After I burn and peel, I keep a good tan for the rest of the summer."
Like an enormous nuclear reactor, the sun generates the heat and light our planet needs for survival. At the same time, the benevolent fire god bombards earth with a rain of radiation that can produce deadly cumulative effects. At the very least, the sun can leave a man once burned and twice shy.
Three types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation emanate from the sun: UVA, UVB and UVC, each distinguished by a particular range of wavelengths. Our atmosphere absorbs nearly all UVC radiation but allows UVA and UVB to pass freely and reach the earth's surface. The stronger of the two, UVB, has long been known to cause sunburn and promote certain skin cancers. Recent studies indicate that UVA's longer wavelength penetrates deeper into skin and may be the primary cause of specific types of skin cancer as well as photo aging (wrinkles, blotchy pigmentation and sagging skin).

Got Protection?
The American Academy of Dermatologists has reported that about a million new cases of skin cancer appear each year in the United States. Fishermen fall into the high-risk group because we endure so much exposure to the sun. Since we'll never wear lead vests and white jump suits - much less carry flowery parasols - while cutting bait and fighting fish under the hot sun, we should at least use sun block to keep harmful radiation off our backs.
Sun blocks absorb and reflect high-energy UV rays, forming a filter that prevents "bad energy" from penetrating the skin. Reading the fine print on a sun-block label will twist your tongue tighter than a 30-wrap Bimini, but the exercise can reveal exactly what type of sun the product is blocking. Two basic types of sun blocks exist: organic and inorganic (also called physical). Organic sun blocks are not composed of naturally occurring substances; in this case, the term refers to complex hydrogen and carbon molecules that are partially absorbed by the skin.
Early formulas contained para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) that, although effective, has frequently provoked allergic reactions and discolored clothing. The stuff developed such a bad rap that it's rarely used today, and many manufacturers now make it a point to label products "PABA free." Don't be surprised to see octyl dimethyl PABA (or Padimate-O) listed as an ingredient; this and other para-aminobenzoic esters have proved effective without causing skin reactions.
Other recipes include salicylates (octyl salicylate - OCS) and cinnamates (octyl methoxycinnamate - OMC). Both these agents present desirable characteristics such as low solubility in water and low incidence of skin sensitization but only block radiation in the UVB spectrum.
Forming an alliance with the Benzo family guarantees a one-two punch of reliable protection at a reasonable price - and we're not talking about an organization in South Philly led by some raspy-voiced patriarch. Dibenzoylmethane compounds like avobenzone absorb UVA wavelengths, making these agents valuable in organic sun blocks providing broad-spectrum protection.
Inorganic (physical) sun blocks cover skin with a shield of microscopic, solid particles that work like a blanket to keep UV radiation from inflicting damage. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide represent the two most commonly employed substances. Formerly available only as a thick white paste (remember the "lifeguard nose" look?), zinc-oxide-based sun blocks now contain particles so tiny the lotion becomes transparent. Titanium dioxide still remains highly visible, so people with a raised level of cosmetic consciousness tend to avoid it.

Factors for Success
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration developed the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) system as a standard for evaluating the ability of sunscreens to prevent sunburn. The SPF number indicates how long the burning effects of the sun will be delayed once the product has been applied. For example, an SPF 10 sun block allows you to withstand 10 times the exposure that you could endure without any sun block at all.
Though SPF ratings range from 2 all the way to 60, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sun block of SPF 15 or higher. Professionals often draw a line here, calling products with SPF 15 or higher "sun blocks" and referring to less potent lotions as "sunscreens." The efficacy of very high SPF formulas remains debatable; while SPF 15 filters about 95 percent of UV radiation, SPF 30 stops about 97 percent.
On the other hand, every little bit of protection helps when your enemy looms as large as the sun. In their paper Sunscreens, Drs. Mark Naylor and Kevin Farmer of the University of Oklahoma point out that multi-day exposure to UV rays (for example, fishing all day Saturday and Sunday) results in a cumulative effect that can undermine the effectiveness of low-SPF sunscreens. "In such instances," the authors state, "a [sun block] of SPF 30 or greater may provide significantly better protection from UV damage."
No matter which strength you choose, be sure to "lube up" about 20 minutes before going out in order to give the sun block time to work into your skin and do its job - and don't forget to reapply frequently.
Since the entire SPF system revolves around preventing sunburn, ratings measure only UVB radiation. No SPF or other standard exists for determining UVA protection. Your best bet for complete protection comes from a broad-spectrum sun block.
Think of your skin as a promising young quarterback entering the NFL's hostile environment. The more protection from blocking - in this case, sun blocking - the longer and healthier the career.