Screening Out The Sun’s Rays

As water reflects and amplifies the sun’s rays, boaters of every age should beware of the hazards of unprotected exposure. Current estimates are that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime; more than one million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year. Malignant melanoma- one of three types of cancer directly related to excessive sun exposure- is the number one cancer in those aged 25-29, and second most prevalent in those aged 15-29 years old. The chilling reality is that one person dies from melanoma every hour.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommendations, regardless of skin type or color, are for a broad spectrum sunscreen with a minimum Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 that protects against UVA rays & UVB rays. UVA rays pass through window glass, causing premature skin aging, wrinkling, and age spots; UVB rays do not penetrate glass and are the cause of sunburn. Don’t let sunshine be your guide: up to 80% of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can pass through clouds and damage skin.

Make-up, lotions, and hand creams may have added sunscreens; such protection is often adequate for routine daily activities, but on the high seas, never be without full sunscreen. Though there are many high SPF products, you are likely to find a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 more aesthetically pleasing than one with an SPF of 70. Don’t be mislead by high-SPF products: an SPF 45 will not provide three times the protection of an SPF 15; an SPF of 30 screens 97% of UVB rays, and a SPF of 15 screens 93% of UVB rays.

Sunscreens should be applied to dry skin 15-30 minutes before going outdoors. Though the AAD recommends that people apply a generous shot glass (one ounce or more) of sunscreen to protect the body, most studies show people use only 25-50% of the recommended amount. Don’t be afraid to apply larger amounts, and be mindful of using spray-on sunscreens. While I love the ease and convenience of the spray, it is easy to miss spots and apply too little sunscreen, so make sure you apply a liberal coating with a systematic approach.

Sunscreen should be generously re-applied every two hours to maintain protection. If you’ve been swimming or perspiring heavily, apply even sooner, as even so-called “water-resistant” sunscreens may lose their effectiveness after 40 minutes in the water.

When it comes to finding an effective sunscreen, I find that store brands are often as effective, but less aesthetically pleasing, than expensive brand name products (you may wish to apply a store brand on your body and a brand name on your face). Look for the AAD SEAL OF RECOGNITION® on labels to help choose products that provide the sun protection recommended by dermatologists.

If you have very sensitive skin, sunscreens containing titanium and/or zinc oxide are best; if you develop a reaction, “cinnamates” may be the ingredient to avoid. Fragrances in sunscreen may also irritate your skin, and avoid combination products like sunscreens with insect repellent.

No matter how conscientious you are about applying sunscreen, I recommend that everyone undergo a yearly full body skin examination by a board certified dermatologist, who will also teach you how to do self-examination.

Dr. Loucas’ perspective on news reports concerning sunscreens:

There has been a lot of controversy in the lay media as to whether sunscreens promote changes in the skin cells that result in increased risks of skin cancer. There have been some recent news articles touting the dangers of using sunscreens, suggesting that sunscreens contain dangerous chemicals that accelerate the growth of skin tumors, disrupt the intricate workings of your hormonal system, or just plain don’t work, giving people a false sense of security so they stay in the sun longer, resulting in an increased risk of skin cancer.

While there may be the smallest bit of merit to claims that applying any “chemical” to your skin may result in some sort of toxicity to your skin, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), scientists, and the majority of scientific data unequivocally support the use of sunscreens.

Besides sun avoidance, which almost impossible for most of boaters, sunscreens are your best bet to avoid skin cancer. Some helpful tips:

  1. Believe that Sunscreens Work. In the past, sunscreens were only regulated for UVB protection, but now there are controls and regulations for the UVA component of sunscreens. Always pick a sunscreen that is broad spectrum. Until a final verdict is in, choose a sunscreen that contains only physical blockers (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide), and avoid sunscreens with chemical blockers.
  2. Don’t Be Afraid to Apply Larger Amounts Frequently. Although the AAD recommends that people apply a generous shot glass (one ounce or more) of sunscreen to protect the body, most studies show people use much less.
  3. Don’t Be So Concerned About the Chemicals…Yet. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t eat anything that is processed, and avoid any drugs or chemicals that we don’t need. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult task. The Environmental Working Group, an organization that specializes in environmental research and advocacy, cites two chemical “culprits” as targets
    1. Retinyl Palmitate is a Vitamin A compound found in 40% of sunscreens.
    2. Oxybenzone accused of being a hormone-disrupting compound only in mice.
    3. Until the picture becomes clearer, try to pick sunscreens that are either purely physical blockers, or if you pick one that contains both physical and chemical blockers (most sunscreens contain both), try to avoid these possibly suspect compounds.
  4. There is No Substitute for Covering Up and Sun Avoidance When Possible. Always try to wear clothing that is light and has built-in UV protection (there are several good clothing lines on the market). Many hats and caps have been lost at sea from gusts of wind, but keep buying them and wearing them!

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Dr. Loucas was listed as one of New York Super Doctors 2012 in the May 20th 2012 issue of The New York Times Magazine.