Sunday, August 28, 2011

How to protect yourself from sunlight's dark side

By Nicola Menke

Hamburg - What is nicer than getting some sun after a long winter? But be it on your balcony, at an outdoor pool or southern seaside, beware: Those warm rays of sunshine can not only tan and gladden you, they can also make you ill. So sunscreen and good sun sense are essential.
'We love and need the light and warmth of the sun, of course. It stimulates the synthesis of vitamin D and the release of 'happiness hormones' like serotonin,' noted Eckard Breitbart of a German task force on skin protection. But just 10 minutes outdoors daily is all it takes to achieve these 'biopositive effects,' he said. Long periods of sun-bathing are not necessary.
'People who expose themselves to direct sunlight too often and too long risk serious health consequences,' Breitbart warned, and sunburns and sun allergies are only the beginning. In the long term, he said, overexposure to the ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight can irreparably damage the DNA in skin cells and increase the risk of skin cancer enormously.
'Ultraviolet radiation is a prime carcinogen, ranking right up there with tobacco smoke and X-rays,' remarked Thomas Dirschka, head of plastic and aesthetic dermatosurgery at the German Dermatologists Association.
Not only intensive 'acute irradiation' is hazardous, but also excessive irradiation over the space of years. Skin cancer is now the most frequent cause of malignant tumours in people with fair skin. In Germany alone, there were about 195,000 new cases of skin cancer last year.
The increased risk of skin cancer is not the only reason to avoid a UV 'overdose,' though. 'Too much sun also leads to premature skin aging, which manifests itself mainly in diminished tone and elasticity, wrinkles and pigment disorders,' said Elena Helfenbein, a beauty expert with the German Cosmetics Distributors and Marketing Association.
Given all of the potentially harmful effects of the sun, some people might be inclined to avoid it altogether. But this is not necessary if you behave responsibly, Drischka said, 'which means keeping outdoor activities away from midday heat and gearing sun exposure to your skin type.' The duration of safe exposure depends on skin pigmentation.
'People who are fair-skinned, freckled and strawberry blonde like (former German tennis star) Boris Becker should get out of the sun after 10 minutes,' Drischka explained. '(Spanish singer) Julio Iglesias types can tolerate much more.'
Someone exposed to the sun for lengthy periods should by all means take precautions. Clothing should be made of a tightly woven, 'sunproof' fabric. A head covering of some kind as well as sunglasses are also important. Sunscreen should be applied to the face and all other exposed parts of the body.
The right sun protection factor (SPF) depends on skin type. 'For children and very fair-skinned and sun-sensitive people, an SPF of at least 30 for the body and 50 for the face is advisable,' Helfenbein said, adding that the sunscreen must also have a UVA and UVB filter, meet European standards and not have exceeded its shelf life.
A sunscreen's effectiveness depends on other factors, too. It should be applied half an hour before sunbathing and reapplied when its protective film has worn off due to swimming, sweating or contact with sand. Reapplication does not, however, prolong the duration of safe exposure to the sun in accordance with the SPF and the natural self-defence of the person's skin.
'This notwithstanding, the entire time ought not be taken because the sun protection factor is a figure calculated under laboratory conditions,' remarked Breitbart, who said that to be certain not to suffer skin damage, one should not exceed 60 per cent of the recommended exposure time. Even more caution is required when solar radiation is particularly intense, such as in the mountains, in the tropics and at the seaside.
Should a sunburn occur, the affected person should seek shade immediately or cover the sunburned area, Drischka advised. In mild cases of sunburn, simply cooling the skin is sufficient. 'If the sunburn is extensive or blisters appear, the person should see a doctor,' Drischka said.

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