It’s that time of year again. Backyard barbecues, lakeside picnics and lazy afternoons at the beach are on just about everyone’s weekend agenda. Americans not only love outdoor leisurely pursuits, but we are also a nation of dedicated sun worshippers. For many, the primary objective is to ...It’s that time of year again. Backyard barbecues, lakeside picnics and lazy afternoons at the beach are on just about everyone’s weekend agenda. Americans not only love outdoor leisurely pursuits, but we are also a nation of dedicated sun worshippers. For many, the primary objective is to attain that golden glow that rewards time spent in the sun – the ultimate tan. But, persistent tanning sessions may forfeit more than time and come at a cost higher than a blanket and dime store novel. You could be sacrificing your health as well.

Too Much of A Good Thing

Make no mistake about it – having fun in the sun is good for you. In fact, sunlight stimulates hormone production, allows for the synthesis of vitamin D, promotes skin cell regeneration and contributes to an overall sense of well-being. Sunlight also induces the manufacture of melanin, a pigment that serves as the skin’s natural sunscreen. But, this built-in screening mechanism can only protect you from the sun for so long. Too much unprotected exposure and you may wind up with a painful sunburn – or worse.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, skin cancer is the most prevalent of all cancers and, with more than 900,000 cases reported each year, rivals its reputation as the “undeclared epidemic.” The American Cancer Society places melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, as the most frequently occurring cancer in women aged 25 to 29. For women aged 30 to 34, melanoma is second only to breast cancer. The rate of occurrence for all groups in recent years has climbed at an alarming rate too. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has determined that the incidence of melanoma from 1973 to 1994 has increased more than 120% and mortality by nearly 40%.

The ABCs of the Sun's UVs

One reason for the increase in the skin cancer rate is the fact that the ozone layer of the earth’s atmosphere is steadily deteriorating, allowing more of the sun’s ultraviolet rays (UVs) to reach the planet surface – specifically, UVA, UVB and UVC rays. UVA rays, also known as the “silent killers,” penetrate the secondary layers of skin and damage the collagen matrix, leading to the dehydration of the strateum corneum, or the uppermost layer. This is why your skin feels “tight” while experiencing sunburn. This is also one of the reasons that photo-aging effects, such as wrinkles and fine lines, can become apparent. The “burning rays,” or UVBs, target the strateum corneum and break down DNA, encouraging cell mutation. UVC rays are considered the most dangerous and can damage unprotected skin with only brief exposure. All of these UVs collectively contribute to the corruption of genetic material and cell formation, paving the way to developing skin cancer.

Sunblock or Sunscreen?

Both sunscreens and sunblocks offer added protection from the sun’s harmful rays, but since they work in different ways, it’s helpful to understand the difference between these products.

Sunscreens permit the absorption of small amounts of UV rays but filters them into benign infrared wavelengths. PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid), a vitamin B derivative, is the only FDA-approved natural sunscreen agent. But, numerous studies have shown that many botanical-based ingredients are effective when applied topically before and after sun exposure. For example, aloe vera has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to speed the healing of burned skin. Some studies suggest that aloe stimulates new cell growth and may possibly block UVB rays. Silymarin, the main constituent of milk thistle, has reduced the number and size of UV-induced skin tumors in mouse skin. In one study, a topical application of green tea inhibited UV-related tumors by 94%. A sampling of other helpful herbal agents include:

- octyl silicylate (obtained from wintergreen, willow and sweet birch)

- octyl methoxycinnamate (derived from cinnamon or cassia)

- herbs with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties: these include eucalyptus, mint, milk thistle, blessed thistle, aloe vera, black walnut, chamomile, lavender and green tea extract

As the name implies, sunblocks “block” the absorption of UV rays. The most beneficial and effective sunblock ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, mineral salts that scatter sunrays and reflect them away from vulnerable skin.

Know Your SPF

SPF is commonly found on suntan product labels and translates to Sun Protection Factor. Most people think that the SPF number indicates the “strength” of the product in terms of its burn protection. But, the assigned SPF number is actually a guide to how long the product will protect your skin. Summer skin care products can range in SPF from 8 to more than 30, so how do you know what SPF you need?

To figure out the best SPF for you follow this simple formula: SPF x the time it takes for you to burn at mid-day (in minutes). For instance, if it typically takes 15 minutes for your skin to show signs of redness when unprotected at noon, then an SPF of 15 will provide adequate protection for 225 minutes (15 x 15), or 3 hours and 45 minutes. A product with an SPF of 15 may be fine for a tennis game or short outing, but a full day in the sun is no match for this product. If you’re expecting to enjoy a day at the beach, for example, then a product with an SPF of 25 or more would be more appropriate. Children, who delight in spending long hours in the sun, should also be protected with an SPF of 25 or higher. One more cautionary note – when your SPF time is up, the party’s over. Reapplying more lotion won’t afford “extra” protection or extend the length of time you can safely spend outdoors.

Sun Risk Factors

Everyone, light or dark-skinned, can be adversely affected by ultraviolet rays. However, there are certain pre-indicators that may make you more susceptible. You may be at particular risk if you:

- have light hair and eye color

- work outdoors

- participate in outdoor sports or gardening on a regular basis

- have several moles or those with irregular shape or color

- have a family member who has had skin cancer

- have had a serious sunburn before the age of 18

Special Considerations:

Certain medications, such as antibiotics and anti-depressants (including St. John’s wort and Prozac) can increase photosensitivity.

What Else Can You Do to Protect Yourself?

- wear a hat and a T-shirt while in direct sun

- in addition to using the proper SPF, use a water-proof product as well

- be cool in the shade, but still use an SPF of 15 or more

- consider using a sunless tanning product (dihydroxyacetone) – but remember, these products don’t provide sun protection in spite of your darker color

And if a burn does occur...

Soak in a tub filled with lukewarm water and 4-5 cups apple cider vinegar for 15-25 minutes. This will restore the acid mantle to the skin and help to relieve redness. Then, gently pat skin dry and apply a lotion with one or more of the botanicals listed above. Of particular benefit are products with high concentrations of vitamin E, aloe vera and green tea extract.


1. Gollnick HPM, et al. “Systemic beta-carotene plus topical UV-sunscreen are an optimal protection against harmful effects of natural sunlight: Results of the Berlin-Eilath study.” European Journal of Dermatology 1996 6:200-05.

2. Katiyar SK, et al. “Protective effects of silymarin against photocarcinogenesis in a mouse skin model.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 1997 April 89;556-66.

3. Hall HI, et al. “Update on the incidence and mortality from melanoma in the United States.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 1999 Jan;40(1):35-42.

4. Conney AH, et al. “Inhibitory effect of green tea on tumorigensis by chemicals and ultraviolet light.” Preventative Medicine 1992 May 21(3):361-69.

Author's Bio: 

Karyn Siegel-Maier is a freelance writer and book author specializing in complimentary therapies.