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Reckoning with Sun Worship: Is It Too Late?

by Marcia Schonberg


You needn't clamor for a second opinion when you're your dermatologist tells you that most of your wrinkles don't stem from aging or too much worrying. For those of us with 'mature' skin, we now could have smoother complexions and far fewer skin problems had we protected our skin from the sun when we were younger.

Even if we had known that the sun-drenched look of years past wasn't, in fact, as healthy for us as we perhaps thought, we probably wouldn't have believed it. Just try telling your teenage children or grandchildren to stay out of the sun today and see how well they listen. They may not stoop to the baby oil tactics of the '50s and '60s, but they still throw caution to the wind (and sun).

For many of us, by the time those first surface wrinkles appeared, the damage, we are now told, had already occurred. That's when we began reaching for every over-the-counter product that promised to erase those lines and miraculously reward us with a newly beautiful and fresher look. Our bronzed, sun-worshipping bodies weren't as attractive as they once were.

We became confused about what is beautiful - the skin-deep type of beauty, that is.

After you read further and discover the answer to that question, you may just start listening for the UV Index along with the broadcast weather reports. This ultraviolet listing is found along with temperature predictions and forecasts how dangerous the sun's rays will be during high noon, give or take a half-hour. It's a simple scale, based from one to ten and takes into account cloud cover, ozone levels, altitude and other factors.

During a recent conversation with dermatologist, Deborah Moritz, M.D. a specialist in the Midwest, she revealed several skin facts that sounded alarming, especially to those of us who don't reside year round in the Sunbelt. I also consulted David Goodman, M.D. a highly regarded specialist in Naples, Fla whose private practice is sprinkled with sunny women over the age of 50.

No matter where we live, we all enjoy bright, sunlit days. Many women admit sunshine elevates their mental health, chasing away the blues caused by dismal days. We plan around those sunlit days and hope for them when we have free time or when we're on vacation.

Neither physician disagrees with the idea of courting the sun for a feeling of well being, but they do stress the need to protect ourselves. Most of the visible damage we try to eliminate later in life happened before we reached 20 years of age, although the effects are cumulative. "Eighty percent of the problems - fine wrinkles, blotchy skin tones - are really caused from sun exposure, not natural aging," Dr. Moritz explained during our conversation. Significant damage can occur when we are young, but the results usually don't emerge until after the age of 30.

Dr. Goodman believes so strongly in preventing sun damage in youngsters that he has joined efforts with fellow Floridians in advocating the creation of "sun-safe environments for children."

"We can erase some of the damage, but not all," Dr. Moritz laments. Sun plays the biggest role in creating what we consider unhealthy and not beautiful, she states unequivocally.

"So is it possible to undo the damage? " I asked.

"Use a sunscreen with an SPF15 on a daily basis - that will prevent ongoing damage," she explained. If you live in the Sunbelt, winter in the South or spend time in the water, use more intensive sunscreen products. For those who use sunscreen and are in temperate zones, the best times to take in the sunshine are before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. "Studies show that despite the use of sunscreens, melanoma is on the increase in persons who spend the 'peak hours' - from 10 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. - in the sun. Dabbing on a little sunscreen isn't enough.

"Regular use and applying it properly is key," Dr. Goodman says. "Most people don't apply enough, nor reapply it often enough. Normally, an SPF of 15 is adequate when used properly, but that is key," he re-emphasizes. Moisture, water sports and activities that cause perspiration decrease the effectiveness of sunscreen.

Cover up. Literally. New on the retail scene are clothing items, including hats, shorts and shirts, created from patented fabrics bearing tags that say "UPF," short for Ultraviolet Protection Factor." They actually block the sun. You'll find similar products in mail-order catalogues from Land's End, L.L. Bean and TravelSmith and through other manufacturers such as Sun Protective Clothing, SunGrubbies and Solartex .

A gentleman with melanoma originally developed the clothing, Moritz said. "He didn't want to alter his lifestyle, so he devised fabrics especially woven to block the sun," she added. "Not all fabrics do that. For example, a light colored tee-shirt gives only about an SPF 6 level of protection." Additionally, once these loosely woven T-shirts get wet, they are even less effective at blocking the sun. Dr. Goodman says a wet T-shirt has a SPF factor of five. "I've never seen anyone burn through dry clothes, though." Other sources suggest looking through your closet for tightly woven garments, like denim. Dr. Goodman advises wearing a wide-brimmed hat, too.

Is make-up containing added SPF15 ingredients adequate under normal conditions? "It's important to wear sunscreen even on cloudy days," Moritz advises. The trouble with make-up is that most women don't apply it to their necks and chest area. Or ears, if you have short hair or pull your hair back. Layering doesn't help or hurt. You won't get the benefits of SPF 30 by wearing two SPF-15s. But choosing one with waterproof qualities will help make it last longer on your skin, Dr. Goodman notes.

Tips on selecting the right product.

  • There are so many sunscreens on the market - how do I know which to choose?
  • Sunscreens work in different ways. Some filter light; others absorb it and still others add a reflective barrier, depending upon the ingredients.
  • Choose a broad-spectrum product that protects against both types of ultraviolet rays, A and B. Generally, professionals agree that zinc oxide-based products do the best job of blocking the sun. Unlike those tubes of thick white goo from years past, they have been reformulated into much lighter, more transparent products. It is recommended that they be applied last, not as a base.
  • The SPF factor suggests the amount of time it takes your skin type to begin reddening from the sun. For example, a cream with SPF 15 should allow you to stay out in the sun 15 times longer than you could without any sunscreen product. There' a catch though: SPF 30 isn't twice as protective as 15. Go figure.
  • Look for waterproof sunscreens if you're going to be exercising or playing sports - any outdoor activity that makes you sweat. Of course, use a waterproof type if you'll be in water. Reapply sunscreen every couple hours and when you get out of the water. Start with fresh products - throw away old and expired containers. And wear it year round.

Websites mentioned in Part 1:; 800-353-8778; 888-970-1600, 877-476-5789

Marcia continues in Part Two with advice on how to help the skin regain health.


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