There Goes the Sun

When it Comes to Ultraviolet Exposure, It Pays to Be Pale

Catching rays, soaking up sun, baking on the beach—there are myriad ways to describe the typical summer tanning experience. The popularity of tanning continues, despite well-proven correlation between sun exposure and skin cancer.

Although skin cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer, it is also one of the most prevalent because people still perceive a bronzed body as a healthy body. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Joyce Ayoub, director of public information at the Skin Cancer Foundation. "There is no such thing as a safe tan," she says. "A tan is the skin’s response to an injury, and a sign of damage." Not only does tanning increase your risk for skin cancer, says Ayoub, but it causes wrinkling, blotching and sagging—hardly an advertisement for healthy living.

Avoid Exposure

The best prevention, says the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is to avoid long exposure to the sun. But in the summer months, most people savor the outdoors, especially in the high-risk period between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you’re planning to spend long days in the sun, protective clothing is the surest way to ward off harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, which are invisible but nevertheless pose a serious health threat.

Stingray"s Casual Traveler hat provides shade and a safe haven from the sun"s rays.© Stingray

Sun-protective clothing provides a better shield than sunscreen since it never rubs off or requires reapplying. While clothing acts as a physical barrier that blocks radiation, sunscreen merely filters radiation—which means skin is still damaged, simply at a slower rate. A good sun-protective fabric will virtually nullify the sun’s effects, blocking up to 98 percent of UV rays.

UV rays penetrate skin and produce free radicals—corrosive molecules that alter cellular DNA. Radiation breaks down the collagen and elastin fibers that give skin its youthful look. The UC Davis Medical Center estimates that 90 percent of age-associated changes in the skin are actually attributable to sun damage rather than advancing years. Genetic changes take the form of brown spots, freckles and spider veins. In a worst-case scenario, mutated or damaged cells begin to multiply and gradually take over healthy skin.

Sick cells are more likely to spread when exposed to UVA and UVB rays, the two major wavelengths of sun that reach Earth. UVA, called the "aging ray," makes up 95 percent of UV light. The long wavelength penetrates deep into skin, damaging cellular proteins, lipids and carbohydrates. The National Science Foundation’s UV Monitoring Network says UVA rays have been linked to 67 percent of malignant melanoma. UVB, the "burning ray," has a shorter wavelength but is 1,000 times more powerful than UVA radiation. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn and DNA damage, and also contribute to skin cancer.

Ever since the tan became a fashion statement in the 1970s (fatefully coinciding with ozone depletion), cancer rates have skyrocketed. In the past decade, numbers reached an all-time high. The Mayo Clinic speculates that nearly half of all Americans who reach the age of 65 will develop some type of skin cancer.

Cover It Up

"The importance of sun protection cannot be overemphasized," advises Ayoub. So, what makes protective clothing such a good choice? Sun-protective fabrics typically have a tight weave, a sun-reflective color, and may be treated with a chemical absorber. A good sun shield will cover vulnerable areas like the neck and arms, while remaining cool and breathable.

Many clothes beachgoers already own may protect against the sun: dark fabrics reflect UV rays and thick clothing, logically, blocks out more sun. But for certified protection, consider buying clothing with a high Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). A shirt with a UPF of 50 allows only 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation to pass through, while clothes with UPFs lower than 15 do not give significant sun protection.

High UPF clothing is engineered to be lightweight and breezy, so wearers won’t sweat for their safety. Many companies, particularly in ozone-sensitive Australia and New Zealand, are specializing in trendy, lightweight apparel, and American companies are close behind. A sun-conscious shopper should have no problem finding chic cover-ups.

The American Academy of Dermatologists estimates that 80 percent of an individual’s sun exposure occurs in childhood, so pay special attention to children’s dress. It’s also important to remember even incidental sun-exposure can have long-term effects. "The 10 minutes [of sun] you get here and there can lead to premature skin aging," says Nicholas Lowe, professor of dermatology at UCLA School of Medicine, who suggests using sun protection even while running errands. "The Skin Care Foundation advocates using a combination of sunscreen and sun-protective clothing," says Ayoub. "But even with the best protection, you shouldn’t stay out in the sun all day."

Sun-protective fashions abound on the Internet, and here’s a quick guide to get you started:

Coolibar (www.coolibar.com): A Skin Cancer Foundation-recommended site, featuring clothes that block 98 percent of UVA and UVB rays. The breathable, lightweight garments come in simple, classic designs.

Stingray UV Swimwear (www.stingray.com.au): This Australian company provides Lycra sun-resistant suits as well as protective leisurewear. Even with shipping, these stylish items cost less than some American-made designs.

Sunstoppers (www.sunstoppers.com): Primarily a children’s website, it offers fun, brightly patterned swimsuits, rash guards and hooded towels.

Mysterioso (www.mysterioso.com): The Malibu, California-based business caters to the hyper-cool surf generation with sleek, high UPF board shorts, hooded sweatshirts and wetsuits.

Solar Eclipse (www.solareclipse.com): All the basics are here—button-down shirts, t-shirts, track pants and straw sun hats, plus protective clothing for sensitive-skinned babies.

Sunsafe (www.sunsafe.com): Sunsafe features chic beachwear in bold styles, from sarongs to zippered swim-shirts to nifty wide-brimmed hats.

Sunveil Sunwear (www.sunveil.com): Sunveil’s products have been medically prescribed for patients with sensitive skin. The sporty designs and breezy fabrics provide maximum comfort and safety.

L.L. Bean (www.llbean.com): Features several quality sun-protective items, including rugged Tropicwear shirts and pants (UPF 40) and Solarweave outback hats.

JAIME DEBLANC-KNOWLES, an E intern, acquired her sun savvy during two years in New Zealand.