Sunburn & Skin Cancer Prevention
May 29, 2011 7:44 PM | Tagged as Sunburn Suncreen Skin cancer

Protecting Against Sunburn and Skin Cancer 

A combination of clothing, modern skin-care products and common sense can go a long way in keeping cancer-causing rays at bay.

In the half hour or so it takes you to peruse this web site, odds are that at least two people will develop a melanoma, a sun-induced cancer in the form a mole, which could be fatal.

During the boating season, chances are at their highest that one of those afflicted is an outdoor-type like you or me, who pays the ultimate price for enjoying a pastime that takes place under the unforgiving rays of the sun.

Sobering thoughts indeed. Here's one more bit of bad news for boaters: Here in the northern hemisphere, those rays are at their deadliest during the summer season when most of us are out on the water for long hours.

That's it for the bad news. But before you trade in your boat for a bowling ball, consider that there are ways to avoid becoming one of those sun-stricken statistics. And while the "solution" to skin protection from the sun may not be as easy as it seemed in the days when you simply coated your nose white with zinc oxide and paraded around the pool playing lifeguard, a combination of modern skin-care products and common sense can go a long way in keeping cancer-causing rays at bay.

The Problem

A person's skin can only tolerate a fixed amount of sunlight over the years, after which the sun's rays start doing real damage. That amount varies with the individual, based on factors like skin color and genetics, but we are all susceptible. What's more, we now know that a sunburn suffered decades ago can come back to haunt you today as a skin cancer, which is why there is so much attention being given to the protection of children from the sun's rays today.

We also know that several other variables affect the amount of damage the sun can do to your skin. Reflected light off the water around a boater can aggravate the problem by pelting the body with rays from all angles; angling in higher altitudes reduces the amount of automatic screening the atmosphere accomplishes. Time of day is an important UV variable. The hours between 10 a.m and 2 p.m. are the worst for being out in the sun. Even geography is a factor, and boaters across the Sun Belt states are more susceptible to contracting skin cancer than those in less-sunny states like Michigan or Washington. But don't think clouds protect you from those damaging rays -- they don't. Neither does a common, loose-weave cotton t-shirt, which a recent study showed offers a SPF equivalent of about an 8, which dropped to only a SPF of 4 when the shirt was wet!

The part of the sun's light that does the damage is invisible to the eye in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum and is generated by the sun in two types of rays: UVA and UVB. The former penetrate the skin the deepest, causing wrinkles and, according to the most recent studies, may play a much more significant role in melanoma formation than previously believed. UVB rays create the classic signs of sunburn and, until recently, were believed responsible for causing most skin cancers.

It's important to realize that any long term exposure to the sun damages the skin, causing pre-cancerous growths that can develop into minor skin cancers of two types. Basil cell cancers usually occur on the face and destroy healthy skin tissue; squamous cell cancers can form anywhere the skin is exposed, but send out "roots" to spread the disease to other parts of the body.

The Solution

Last year, anglers and other sun-savvy Americans spend $450 million on sun-care products, most containing broad-spectrum sunscreens formulated to screen both types of damaging ultraviolet solar radiation. The products are categorized by how well each blocks the sun's UV rays, and are given a sun protection factor (SPF) rating.

Since the mid-1980s, a thick coat of sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher was believed to be all one needed to avoid the risks of spending too much time under the sun. For example, if you noticed a burn beginning to form on your forearms after an hour in the sun, you had reason to believe that using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 would allow you to keep fishing for 15 hours before burning.

We now know that that's not quite the way it works. Research shows that sunscreens with an SPF of 15 block about 90% of UV rays, while a sunscreen lotion with an SPF of 30 blocks about 97% of the damaging rays. Dermatologists now recommend sunscreens with at least a SPF of 15, and advise using a 30. There's no proof that sunscreens with higher SPF block any more than the 97% screened by the 30 SPF products, but there is proof that slathering on any sunscreen at regular intervals throughout the day is what's important to continuous protection, especially for active outdoorsmen like boaters who can quickly sweat, wipe or rinse their sun protection away in the course of their activity.

Several brands of sunscreens claim to be waterproof, sweat-proof, rub-proof or offer 8-hour or "all day" protection. In real life situations, none really do, so reapply whatever sun block you're wearing every three to four hours. And if you've ever hosted a guest aboard your boat who was slick with a PABA-based sunscreen, and she left behind impossible-to-remove tan-colored stains on the gelcoat, rest easy: PABA is falling out of favor as a sunscreen because it was found to irritate some people's skin, and the ingredients in the new sunscreens aren't damaging to protective finishes like those found on boats.

That's NOT the case with some combination sunscreen/insect repellant concoctions that entered the market recently. Stick with those that rely on natural insect-repelling ingredients like citronella or cedar oil if you're worried about damaging those finishes.

Dressing the Part

Sunscreens aren't the only answer for boaters and other outdoorsmen concerned with skin cancer. You've got to dress the part to be fully protected from the ravages of the sun. Closely woven long-sleeved shirts and pants offer the best protection from the neck down; above that, a broad-brimmed hat that shades the back and sides of the head -- as well as the forehead and eyes -- is what's called for. Popular baseball-style caps leave too much skin exposed in sensitive areas to be effective, even when complemented with sunscreen; and remember that your favorite t-shirt may offer only minimal protection -- before you sweat through it! After that it offers the sun protection equivalent of wax paper.

By using a combination of commercial sunscreens, proper clothing and common sense, boaters can enjoy the water during any time of the day or year and avoid an overdose of deadly ultraviolet light.

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