Summer has finally arrived! All those glorious outdoor activities we enjoy under the sweet summer sun are just waiting for us—kayaking along the Hudson, hiking the Catskills, tending to the tomatoes in the veggie garden. Yet, as we all know, long hours in the blazing sun can have long-term effects on our skin. The two main concerns are risk of skin cancer and premature aging, which increase as exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) does.
In addition to using sunscreen, there are many ways to help prevent skin cancer and sun-enhanced skin damage. Some of our best defenses against the sun’s negative effects can be found all around us, including in the bedroom closet, the kitchen spice rack, the table’s fruit bowl, and the local natural food or herbalist store.
Timing is everything
The sun’s rays are at their most potent between the hours of 11am and 4pm. Stephen Weinman, MD, of Essence Medispa in Highland, reminds us that the sun of our childhood is much different than that of today, because ozone depletion allows more UV to get to us. To get the point across that radiation is real, he says, “I like to tell my patients to picture the sun as an enormous x-ray machine. When the sun is high in the sky during these peak hours, you are getting bombarded with rays.” For your skin’s sake, plan your outdoor activities to avoid the period of 11 to 4 whenever possible. If you do go out during these peak hours, minimize your time in the sun. Seek shade under a lovely old oak, a big umbrella, or a protected porch. Remember, too, that clouds do not guarantee protection, as ultraviolet radiation is only partly hindered by them. Reflections off water (and snow) add to sun exposure.
The screen is still the thing
According to M. Sara Rosenthal, PhD, in her book, Stopping Cancer at the Source, “Many of us don’t even understand sunscreen or how to apply it properly. And sunscreen is crucial. In fact, some have estimated that if sunscreen is used regularly in the first 18 years of life, the lifetime risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer would be reduced by an impressive 78 percent.” Nonmelanoma skin cancers (e.g., basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) account for about 90 percent of skin cancer cases in the US; melanoma is much less common but still accounts for some 8,000 deaths a year.
Whatever your age, it’s never too late to become sunscreen savvy and put your knowledge into practice. Don’t count on a suntan or a naturally dark skin tone to protect you. True, light-colored skin burns more easily and lighter-skinned individuals are more prone to developing skin cancer. But skin cancer can afflict darker-skinned people too, and all shades of skin are subject to sun damage.
Choose a sunscreen with natural ingredients and the fewest manmade chemicals, other than those that do the ultraviolet blocking. Seek out the ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which protect against UVA and UVB rays without harmful side effects. The term “broad spectrum” on the label assures you that the sunscreen offers protection from both types of rays. Select an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15. The numerical SP value comes from laboratory studies, and reflects how long the product extended the time that people can be exposed to ultraviolet radiation (of type-B rays) before burning. SPF 30, for example, would protect a person who burns in 10 minutes for 300 minutes, or 30 times longer—theoretically, that is. In practice, everyone’s skin is different, and so are the exposure conditions.
Dr. Weinman recommends using an SPF of 45 or even 60, especially if reapplying isn’t your summer forte. “There are also higher grades of sunscreen which will cost more but will give you antiaging and additional sun protection. At Essence Medispa, we offer sunblock infused with concentrated amounts of copper, as copper is known to rejuvenate the skin and aid in wound healing.”
Apply your sunscreen 20 minutes before going out and reapply approximately every two hours—more often if you’re sweating, swimming, or showering. Use it generously: A little drop that rubs in immediately isn’t going to work. And if you’re wearing little covering, such as a bikini, enlist a friend to help you get to those hard-to-reach places. You may even need sunscreen while driving: Studies have documented more skin cancers on the left side of the body among people who drive a lot, especially with windows down, . (Windshields typically block UVA and UVB, but side windows only block UVB.)
Lotions, potions, and cutting edge medical treatments
Dr. Tom Francescott, a naturopathic doctor in Rhinebeck, is an avid advocate of neem lotion for skin health. “It can be used in many ways,” he says, “as an insect repellent, for skin conditions including eczema and psoriasis, and even as a sunblock.” He reminds us that aloe vera is great for the postsunburn blues. “Simply cut the leaf of an aloe plant and apply the gel directly to burned skin. Lavender oil works for sunburns as well. For general skin moisturizers, coconut oil and sesame oil are great too.” Skin massage with all-natural products like these oils improves circulation, and so aids in toxin removal, healing, and healthy skin maintenance.