A glossy golden brown tan to set off toned limbs - that's the stuff which the young fashion-conscious dreams are made of. The pursuit of that bronzed, sun-kissed look has led to an influx of sun worshippers in bikinis, board shorts, and bare chests congregating at the beaches. But just how much do they know about the dangers associated with excessive sun exposure?
A lot of youths are adventurous, fun loving and are passionate about sports. This may just cause them to overlook the necessity of proper sun protection. While many outdoor sports like soccer, wakeboarding, windsurfing etc are undoubtedly beneficial to health, the risks of excessive sun exposure to the participants are also very real.
The sun emits 3 types of ultraviolet (UV) rays: UVA, UVB and UVC. Only UVA and UVB rays reach the earth's surface because UVC is filtered out by the ozone layer.
UVA penetrates deeply into the skin and triggers the production of melanin, which is a pigment in our body that causes skin to tan. UVB primarily affects the skin's outer layer and causes sunburn. UV rays are thought to be responsible for chronic photo-aging (cluster of skin conditions like hyper pigmentation, wrinkles and sagging skin), and skin cancer.
Sunburn is one of the short-term damages of sun exposure. It ranges from redness and pain to redness and swelling, and in some serious cases, blisters can occur.
Frequent sunburns have been associated with increased risks of getting skin cancers. There are 3 common types of skin cancers: squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and malignant melanoma.
Most SCC and BCC cases are caused by chronic exposure to sunlight. These tumors appear most commonly on sun-exposed areas like the face, hands, back, shoulders and lower lip. SCC tumors are irregular and fleshy growths that can enlarge and break down into ulcers.
BCC tumors are often shiny and pigmented, with raised borders. The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) in New York, USA, estimates that some 800,000 and 200,000 Americans suffer from BCC and SCC annually respectively.
Malignant melanoma is cancer of the skin's pigment cells. It may form in pre-existing moles, where pigmentation is heavily concentrated. The tumors are presented as large, thick and colored (red, blue or black) patches that grow rapidly, with irregular outlines. The SCF estimates that about 51,000 new cases of malignant melanoma are reported annually in the USA.
On a less fatal note, exposure to bright light can also trigger migraines and headaches, for up to 24 hours. Melasma is another UV-related skin disorder characterized by symmetrical brown pigmentation patches in UV-exposed areas and affects women 90% of the time.
Block Out the Sun
Much as knowledge of sun exposure dangers is important, knowing how to minimize risks is even more essential. Techniques to minimize damage from sun rays can be divided into those to do with behavior and those to do with fabrics.
Behavior wise, sun-lovers can refrain from carrying out high-risk activities between 10am and 4pm, when the sun's rays are the strongest. On a general note, try to keep in the shade while going about normal activities.
Fabrics that are sun-protective have tight weaves and are dark-colored. To test for a tight weave, hold the garment about 7 inches from your eyes towards a light source. If visible light can penetrate holes between the threads, so can UV rays. Dark colors absorb harmful UV rays better than light-colored clothes and hence protect the skin better.
To protect the face, sunscreen is essential, preferably one with at least Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 20. Reliable brands include Sunkiller, La Roche-Posay and Coppertone. If sun exposure time is expected to be long, then a sunscreen of higher SPF of 45 or 60 is recommended. One often-neglected directive is to reapply sunscreen frequently throughout the day, as sweat or friction may have washed it away. For the eyes, sunglasses with UV-protective coating are advised.
Fashion-conscious youths who covet a tan but are afraid of increasing their skin cancer risks have started to frequent tanning salons. This misguided attempt only reduces the incidence of sunburn and not skin cancer, warns Dr Wong, an associate consultant dermatologist with the National Skin Centre of Singapore.
"In fact, by going to tanning salons, you are exposed to unnecessary excessive UVA, which may increase your risk of getting skin cancer as it is primarily UVA-mediated."
One relatively harmless alternative to sun tanning is to use self-tanning lotions. These contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which reacts with proteins in dead skin cells on the skin surface to result in brown pigmentation, which becomes the tan. While self-tanning lotions, like other topical products, have been known to cause skin irritation, no adverse long-term effects have been recorded.
As we welcome the warm, sunny weather, do keep in mind the relevant risks and precautions. Being cautious when young may just save you lots of heartache and pain in later years.