Almost all of us will agree with the concept of sun protection. After all, we know that the sun causes sunburn, aging and cancers of the skin. The problem is that most of what we are told and have used will not accomplish the protection we need. A portion of the Sun’s emitted electromagnetic spectrum, namely radio waves, some infrared, visible light and some UV waves, penetrates the atmosphere to strike us. All but UVA and UVB are considered harmless.
For the last 30 or 40 years, we have worried about UVB rays because we could see their effects. They are absorbed easily by the atmosphere and anything else they hit. They are, therefore, strongest when they come straight through the atmosphere, down south, midday in the summer. If they strike us, they are absorbed quickly within the outermost part of the skin where they make our skin feel hot, and, if we get enough, cause sunburn. The first sunscreens were developed to block UVB and prevent sunburn. They did a good job at this, some better than others. To inform us how good each was, the FDA created a system that rated their performance. This is known as SPF or Sun Protection Factor.
For years, we thought that the heating and burning of the skin was what caused all the damage and eventually led to skin aging and cancer. This caused us to hypothesize that, since most sunburns occurred when we were young, all the damage was done then. We now know better. UVA penetrates the atmosphere almost as well as light. It is, therefore, present dawn to dusk, summer and winter and from North Dakota to South Florida. It also makes up 97-98% of the UV Rays that hit the earth and us. It is not absorbed well by anything, and penetrates clouds, glass and clothing to reach us. When it hits the skin it penetrates and is absorbed slowly. Though it does not cause sunburn or heat the skin, it does cause direct cell damage.
It is, thus, UVA that causes most of the damage to our skin. It is almost all of the UV radiation that actually hits our skin. It is present all the time. Though we no longer lay in the sun, we are still getting UVA radiation, even in the house, in cars and through our clothes. If we do get a sunburn from UVB, much of the damaged cells are shed. We have also shown that damage is cumulative over a lifetime. What we get now is additive to what we have already gotten to further skin aging or stimulate skin cancer production.
So, how do we protect ourselves? Since SPF only indicates our protection from UVB and sunburn, it is worthless in determining whether we are protected from UVA. The FDA has tried four times over about 14-15 years to create a standard to indicate UVA protection similar to Australia and Europe. Their latest attempt was to go into effect in July of this year. Implementation has now been pushed back to December. So, how do you know how to protect yourself? In spite of the lack of present standards, there is an easy way.
Of the sun protection products presently available, there are only two that block the full spectrum of UVA. One of these, avobenzone (including Helioplex by Neutrogena), as far as we now have data, only lasts about an hour or two and takes 30 minutes to start working. Since we need to reapply it hourly, it is impractical. The other is Zinc Oxide. It, too, was impractical, since it made you appear white. However, new formulations of Zinc Oxide now go on clear and still protect from both VUB and UVA. We, therefore, recommend you look for a product containing at least 5-11% Zinc Oxide. (This amount protects but still goes on easily. Just turn the container over and look under the ingredients. If it does not have a percentage, it does not contain enough.) This has been somewhat hard to find. With the looming new requirements, it is now much easier. Even so, we stock five different brands in our office. We recommend, since UVA is constantly present, that you apply it daily year round to any exposed areas, reapplying if you wipe it off. In the US, because Vitamin D is in so many foods and multivitamins, we, do not have to worry about Vitamin D deficiency.
What about non-exposed areas? Since UVA goes through regular clothing, there is now sun protective clothing available at the Highland Hiker and other retailers. You can also wash your present clothing in Sun-Guard by Rit, available, for your convenience, at our office as well as elsewhere. This is used in the washer and imparts sun protection to the washed garments for 20 washes (about 6 months).
For more information call the Center for Plastic Surgery at 828-526-3783, or toll free 877-526-3784, or go to “Contact Us” elsewhere in this site.