Summer. We love the light of its longer days and welcome the sun’s mood-lifting rays, but we worry about its aging effects and skin cancer. Summer, as always, brings with it a mix of good and bad news.
First, the bad news: More than one million cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year alone, and rates of melanoma—the deadliest form—are steadily rising.
The good news: Better-than-ever sunscreens are making their way onto the American market. And new research suggests that while too much sun is certainly dangerous, not getting enough may be unhealthy too.
THE SUNSHINE VITAMIN: DO WE NEED
For years, we’ve been told how bad the sun is for our skin, our eyes, our looks, our you-name-it. But giving up the sun completely is like giving up chocolate: It’s too tempting to resist totally. And maybe you shouldn’t.
“The public has been brainwashed for 20 years about the dangers of the sun,” says Michael F. Holick, MD, a professor of medicine, physiology and dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine. “Too much sun is harmful, and precautions need to be taken. But it’s also true that some sun exposure is absolutely necessary for good health.” For one thing, sunlight lifts your mood and chases away the blues. That’s why a dearth of sun in the depths of winter can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of clinical depression. For another, sun exposure stimulates our skin to make vitamin D, and D protects against bone loss and fractures. But that’s not all: Women who get at least 400 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily from supplements are 40 percent less likely to develop multiple sclerosis, reported Harvard School of Public Health researchers in 2004. And other recent studies have found that vitamin D helps lower the risk of breast, colon, prostate and other cancers,
HOW TO PRACTICE SAFE SUN
One of the most anticipated developments in sun protection is Mexoryl SX, a broad-spectrum, highly advanced UVA-absorbing sunscreen that may be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this year. Mexoryl, a product derived from camphor, has been available in Canada and Europe for almost a decade. “Get your hands on this stuff,” recommends dermatologist Richard Glogau, MD, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s highly tolerable for sensitive skin types, and it’s ‘photostable,’ which means you put it on once and it stays active all day.” Glogau also praises Mexoryl as an anti-aging product. “I’ve seen patients’ freckles fade significantly after they’ve used Mexoryl for six weeks,” he says. “Skin color improves, texture improves and a lot of photo damage is reversed—it’s that good at blocking UVA rays.”
Although scientists don’t completely understand the process, they know that protecting the skin from sun allows it to repair itself and even produce new collagen—the tissue that, among other things, gives skin its youthful-looking plumpness.
Mexoryl was patented by L'Oréal Paris, the parent company of Lancôme, Helena Rubinstein, La Roche-Posay, Biotherm and Ombrelle. Canadian and European pharmacies carry Mexoryl-containing products such as Anthélios XL (from La Roche-Posay) and Ombrelle. Both can also be found at the New York apothecaries Zitomer (888.219.2888) and C.O. Bigelow (800.793.5433) and online at feelbest.com and skincarelab.com.
If you need to be extra-cautious about sun—say, you burn in a flash or have an illness like lupus that’s sun-triggered—look for protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats that have a high Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). A shirt with a UPF of 50, for example, allows only 1/50 of the sun’s UV radiation to pass through. The American Society for Testing and Materials rates a UPF of 15–24 as good; 25–39 as very good; and 40–50 as excellent. A typical cotton T-shirt provides a UPF of only about 5–8 when dry and virtually none when wet.
A few companies specialize in making UPF 30 to 50+ lines: Sun Solutions (800.895.0010; sunsolutionsclothing.com), Coolibar (800.926.6509; coolibar.com) and Solumbra (800.882.7860; sunprecautions.com). Their clothes are soft, cool and engineered to be lightweight and breezy.
If you don’t want to buy a whole new summer wardrobe, you can make some of your favorite beach clothes more sun-resistant with Rit Sun Guard UV Protectant Laundry Treatment, a powder you throw in with the wash. It adds a can’t-tellit’s- even-there coating of SPF 30 that lasts through 20 wash cycles.
It’s available for $4 in drugstores and grocery stores, or online.