Outdoor Smarts: The Skin Game

Want to play it safe when enjoying fun-in-the-sun Scouting this summer? Here’s how to protect your body from harmful, cancer-causing UV rays.

Summer camp, high adventure trips, vacations at the beach — all offer exciting possibilities within the next few months. But though spending time outdoors is both healthy and refreshing, you can get too much of a good thing.

“Eighty percent of an adult’s sun damage happens before the age of 18,” says Dr. Roy Rogers, a dermatology professor at the Mayo Medical School and Clinic. Early exposure can cause skin damage that appears decades later: wrinkling, premature aging, and skin cancers, including the potentially deadly malignant melanomas.

“We’re seeing an epidemic of skin cancers,” Dr. Rogers says. As a former volunteer Scouter, Dr. Rogers knows all about the benefits of outdoor exercise. “We don’t want people to stay in caves,” he says. “But they need to protect themselves. Every sunburn you avoid is good news.”

Most people realize they’re at risk on a sunny day at the beach, but what about those cool, cloudy days high in the mountains? Protect yourself there, too, Rogers recommends. The thinner air and glaring snow increase your risk of sunburn, even if there’s no sun in sight.

Similarly, the water that refreshes you while canoeing, rafting, or kayaking also reflects sunlight and increases the danger of sunburn even though you’re less likely to notice it.

“It’s not just the sunlight coming down on you,” Dr. Rogers says. “It’s what’s reflected at you.” And because the strongest sunlight occurs between 10 A.M. and 4 P.M., be aware that those are the most dangerous times of the day.

In addition, some people with blue eyes, light skin, and light or red hair just face a greater risk.

Sunscreen basics

UV-A and UV-B rays both cause sunburn, so you’ll notice when you’ve been overexposed. But UV-A rays are more insidious. “They penetrate more deeply,” says Dr. Rogers. “While they don’t cause immediate, visible damage, they cause long-term damage, including skin cancers.”

To prevent that damage, get a good sunscreen. The numerical SPF (sun protection factor) rates how long you’ll be protected. If you normally burn after 10 minutes in direct sunlight, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 protects you — theoretically, at least — for 150 minutes (your “normal” burn time of 10 minutes times the SPF factor of 15). However, the amount of sunscreen applied, variations in skin type, sweating, time of day, altitude, and exposure to water can change the effective SPF.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a SPF rating of at least 15. FDA regulations set
the maximum SPF rating at 30 (sun-screens above that can carry a rating of 30+). But don’t let a high SPF lull you into a false sense of security: Very few sunscreens provide all-day protection, and it’s always advisable to reapply sunscreen after exercise or swimming.

Although SPF applies only to UV-B rays, not the potentially more dangerous UV-A rays, most sunscreens on the market do protect against UV-A rays. Read the label.

If you’re hoarding sunscreen from your trip to the Florida sea base five years ago, trash it. Sunscreens degrade over time, so it’s not only past the expiration date, it’s ineffective against UV-A rays.

You can also boost UV-A protection by using zinc oxide, titanium dioxide (the thick, white goop lifeguards wear on their nose), or the sunscreen avobenzone, which effectively blocks both UV-A and UV-B rays.

Sunscreens come in all sorts of formulas: moisturizing, hypoallergenic, scented. Some even offer insect protection. However, Dr. Rogers recommends keeping your purchase choices simple. “Inexpensive drugstore brands perform just as well as expensive name brands, as long as they protect against both kinds of rays and have the same SPF.” If you plan to participate in water activities, choose waterproof brands.

For maximum absorption, apply the recommended amount of sunscreen to dry skin 15 to 30 minutes before exposure. Ask someone to help apply it to hard-to-reach areas, and don’t overlook the back of your neck, your feet and toes, around your ears, and the backs of your knees. Also, choose a lip balm with the highest SPF you can find, especially if you are susceptible to cold sores, which can be exacerbated by exposure to the sun.


Desert dwellers dealing with blistering sun every day wear head-to-toe, loose-fitting robes that provide ventilation and shade. Follow their example by dressing in long pants and long sleeves. Choose clothing that moves easily without being so loose that it catches on rocks or branches.

Some manufacturers make clothing designed for sun protection. Look for comfort features such as breathable fabrics, ventilation flaps, and the ability to wick away moisture. For maximum protection, the fabric’s weave should be tight, and check to see if the material has an SPF rating.

The Solumbra line from Sun Precautions, at www.sunprecautions.com, or ExOfficio’s sun protection line, at www.exofficio.com, can have an SPF of up to 30 or more.

For a less expensive alternative to buying items manufactured with SPF material, add it to the clothing you already own in the washing machine. RIT (www.Ritdye.com) makes a product called Sun­Guard that, when applied according to directions, can increase clothing’s SPF rating from 4 (a typical T-shirt) to 30 (the strongest sunscreen). SunGuard lasts up to 20 washings.

To protect your face, neck, or ears, shade it with a hat with a wide brim (think Indiana Jones or a cowboy). An Australian-style, floppy brimmed bush hat or a Tilley hat make good picks, as does a Foreign Legion-style hat, with a visor in front and flap in back to protect your neck. Tilley hats also deliver maximum SPF protection besides shade. Experts don’t recommend baseball caps. No matter how you wear them, the brim only protects one side of your head.

Choose a light-colored hat that reflects more light and helps keep your head cool.


Medical evidence suggests that while long-term exposure to the sun can contribute to the formation of cataracts, short-term exposure is dangerous, too.

Dr. Rogers notes that at high altitudes reflected rays of the sun can burn the corneas, causing snow blindness. He advises you to wear sunglasses when climbing, even on cloudy days. Canoeists, kayakers, and whitewater rafters should wear them, too, because glare off the water can cause eye damage over time.

Look for glasses that fit snugly.

Mountaineering glasses have ventilated leather side flaps, which block light from coming in from the sides. In less severe environments, you can wear clip-on sunglasses over prescription eyewear, but at high altitudes, you need complete eye protection.

Karen Berger is the author of Backpacking and Hiking (BSA No. 34354, $20). Visit her Web site atwww.hikerwriter.com.

Sunburn First Aid

What do you do when, despite all your warnings to lather up with sunscreen, several summer-camp Scouts show up at your tent with lobster-red complexions?

Here’s the advice of Mayo Clinic dermatologist Dr. Roy Rogers.

  • Avoid giving aspirin to youth and teens for pain because it has been associated with Reye’s syndrome, a central nervous system disorder. Instead dispense acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Aleve).
  • Apply a moisturizing cream. Aloe vera works well, as does Eucerin, Vanicream, Lubriderm, Neutrogena, and similar over-the-counter ointments.
  • Use cool compresses with bath towels and water, or take a cool bath.
  • If blisters form, don’t rupture them. The serum inside contains healing properties.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

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