Skin Cancer Here I Come
June 25, 2007 2:33 PM   Subscribe

Elite tips on avoiding sunburns that go beyond the standard online guides about staying out of the sun during the middle of the day and finding a high SPF sunblock for a light-skinned person about to embark on 3 weeks of way-too-much sun.

I'm the stereotypical "never tans always burns" light-skinned dude and I'm heading off to a 3 week summer camp. Turns out I can't see my dermatologist before I go, so I turn to askmefi for any super-duper sunblocking tips. I've read the three previous threads on ask (here, here, and here) and I have plenty of good tips on specific brands, but I am looking for other advice.

I'm open for any general tips on how to make it through the next 3 weeks, and some of my specific questions are:
1) If (or more likely, when) I get burned, is there anything I can do after to help prevent future skin cancer? Is there some after-lotion or other methods I can use to help mitigate any damage that might lead to cancer down the line?
2) What is the best way to be applying and re-applying throughout the day? If I'm sweating and slimy should I wipe all the old gunk off first, or just slather more on over it? Is it better to start with a rub on lotion and then switch to a spray on for a second coat or stick with the same brand?
3) Finally, any advice or anecdotes from similarly light-skinned folks who have had to endure weeks of overpowering sun about how they survived would be helpful.

posted by andoatnp to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and although I didn't mention it in the post, I do plan on having a big floppy hat with me, but any other clothing accessory recommendations would be nice.
posted by andoatnp at 2:40 PM on June 25, 2007

A tip I just figured out last summer-
Chances are you will burn quicker if you're on concrete. The lighter the concrete, the quicker you'll burn. Actually, this goes for just about any solid, uniform light-colored surface. Since it's reflecting sunlight you've got to be that much more careful. If you're on a darker surface, or a non-uniform one, you'll last a little longer since the sunlight/radiation is either being absorbed or dispersed.
posted by lekvar at 2:42 PM on June 25, 2007

Carry a parasol (or regular old umbrella).

On preview: Hmm, you're a man. I've never seen a man carrying a parasol, but you could be the one to start the trend!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:43 PM on June 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hmm, you're a man. I've never seen a man carrying a parasol, but you could be the one to start the trend!

I guess you've never been to a gay pride event in a sunny locale then...

I'll consider some type of umbrella thing, although it's camp so lots of running around/physical activity means it might not be that practical.
posted by andoatnp at 2:46 PM on June 25, 2007

I'm an "always burns" redhead who spent tree months backpacking around Southeast Asia last summer. You just have to be willing to sacrifice a little vanity. In a nutshell:

1. Big floppy hat. I got one from REI made out of hemp that is machine washable. Don't go outside without it.

2. I got some "Aloe Gator" sunblock (also at REI) that stayed on through swimming & sweating, have to shower at the end of the day to soap it off, but it saved me.

3. A long-sleeve, high-collar "SPF shirt" with vents for breathability. A light color stays surprisingly cool. Again, got mine at REI.

If you are going anywhere high altitude, watch out- the sun is deceptively strong. Also cloudy days can fool you- put the sunblock on regardless.

If you do get burned, take some ibuprofen, a cool shower, and my personal favorite, aloe vera gel that's been stored in the fridge.
posted by ambrosia at 2:47 PM on June 25, 2007

I like Coolibar's clothing. The shirts are on the bland side in style but are amazing at blocking UV and are not sweaty or uncomfortable to wear. I've worn their stuff all day at the beach and at water parks without getting even slightly red.
posted by jamaro at 2:49 PM on June 25, 2007

And no, you can't "undo" skin damage from the sun, only prevent it.
posted by tristeza at 2:49 PM on June 25, 2007

Sun protection

Everything I needed to know about sun protection, I learned during my Australian childhood. Really. This site is your friend.
posted by different at 2:53 PM on June 25, 2007

If you are very sensitive, go to a travel store and see if you can find some UV blocking clothing. You can (and I do) burn through a t-shirt.

You should apply your sunscreen a few minutes before you go out. Try to stay away from water. I still go swimming but I don't hangout on docks, because the reflection can be worse than the sun. And be sure to dry yourself off when you are wet or sweating.

I have great luck with Ombrelle 30. The other thing I do is expose my skin to sun in the early morning/ late afternoon to get a little bit of a tan. I think this helps more than using sun screen.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 2:55 PM on June 25, 2007

Before a recent trip to Egypt, I invested in some very lightweight shirts and pants from high-end travel/outdoorsy brands like Ex Officio and REI. All of them had a listed SPF rating of 30 or higher.

I found it much, much easier just to throw on a shirt instead of applying and re-applying sunscreen all day, and I was completely comfortable. The Ex Officio "DryFlyLite" shirts are literally so light I occasionally forget I'm wearing them, and most models are good-looking enough to pass for business casual. They're wrinkle-free, quick-drying, et cetera. They're not cheap--around $60, depending on what you get--but I think it's a worthwhile investment. The "Expedition Shirt" by Royal Robbins is also very cool (lots of pockets!) Magellan's has a good selection of these types of clothes, as does REI.

With the clothes and a wide-brimmed hat, I got through a week of traipsing around outdoors in the hot desert sun without any sunburns at all, and without the mess and difficulty of proper sunscreen application. I highly recommend this method.
posted by fermion at 3:00 PM on June 25, 2007

To prevent burning, you could go to a tanning salon and spend a few sessions laying down a base on one of their tanning beds.

Personally, I wouldn't do it, but you could.
posted by dersins at 3:00 PM on June 25, 2007

I am a very very white-skinned girl. I burn if I think about the sun. I was the person in your college class who would have to leave if the prof decided to "have class outside today."

I frequently have to work outside, and these are my coping mechanisms.

1) I put on a long-lasting sunscreen before I get dressed [this helps compensate for my clothes allowing rays in or just moving around.] I set an alarm on my phone to remind me to re-apply in two hours. If possible I wash my face and arms before re-applying. If not, I just re-apply. I trust the kind I rub on more than I trust the spray.

2) I seek out shade and I cover myself even if is makes me uncomfortable for a bit. If I see shade I can stand in, I do. I won't eat on a restaurant patio if I can't be in some shade. I always wear long pants. I will usually wear a jacket or other long-sleeved layer for as long as I can stand it. I wear a funny-looking hat with a panel that covers my neck.

3) I purchased a shirt with vents that is treated with SPF. I see that RIT also makes a rinse you can treat your own clothes with to add SPF. This works best if you will submit to wearing long sleeves.

4) Solarcane and Aloe gel will help take the pain out of any eventual burn. A cool bath or shower is suggested to help stop the burn [like any other skin burn, a sunburn continues to damage your skin for several hours after you leave the sun]. An AHA lotion can "undo" sun damage, but it's in a cosmetic sense, not a medical one. The Cosmetics Cop has a good primer on sunscreen and sun damage here. It's a little girly-centric.
posted by Mozzie at 3:06 PM on June 25, 2007

My ancestors roamed across the frozen trunda, perfectly adapted to the long dark northern winters. I burn to a crisp at the slightest hint of sun. I also get heat rash. Nice.

I managed to get neither during 3 weeks in India. Here's how:
- a hat;
- sleeves that covered at least my shoulders (that one was partly out of cultural considerations, but it definitely helped);
- suncream, suncream, suncream, whenever I remembered. I had planned to start with Factor 50 and work down to something lower during the 3 weeks, but I ended up sticking with the 50 - during the day I didn't get rid of the gunk, cause that's kind of hard to do when you in the middle of an abandoned old fort in the deserts of Rajastan;
- showers (this one's was as much for the heat rash, but I think cleaning the crap off and cooling down as often as possible helped the skin all round);
- drinking lots of water - being thirsty and cranky doesn't lead you to remembering to put more cream on;
- and the crucial one, when ever possible, I stayed out of the sun, especially in the middle of the day.

I know the last one will be hard on camp - but if you can find any shade at any time, stand under it. The rest of the options will help, but the only really effective way to stop getting sunburn is to avoid the sun.

Oh yeah, and remember reflections, off light coloured surfaces and water (and snow - but I don't think you'll be seeing much of that). And that you can get sunburnt through clouds (probably also not relevant, but the worst time I got burnt was a grey day in Wales).
posted by Helga-woo at 3:11 PM on June 25, 2007

1) Nothing you can do after the fact to avoid skin cancer. Avoidance is the best policy, but don't beat yourself up about getting a tan or accidentally burned once in a while.

However, you can help your skin out with a lotion that contains antioxidants in general through the weeks. Paula's Choice makes some concentrated antioxidant serums, and many good lotions will contain what you're looking for as well. Here's an essay on the interaction between sunscreen and antioxidants: UVA/UVB Sun Protection and the Importance of Antioxidants. On preview: I see another recommendation for a cosmetics cop article above as well. She really does a great job of summing up basic scientific research on this stuff.

It'd be nice to have an aloe/aloe-based after sun lotion, just in case.

2) Once the active ingredients in your lotion are no longer active, I don't think it's going to help you any to have old lotion on your face when applying new stuff. So wipe off the sweaty sticky stuff.

3) I spent a week in Mexico last year and I was pretty worried about sunburn while there, so I went into super-protective mode for the week. I always wear a basic sunscreen every day, but I brought along a sweat-proof high SPF sunscreen and carried it around with me each day and reapplied as necessary. I stood/sat in shade whenever possible. I wore a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. All the basic stuff like that really does add up - I came back with barely a tan despite spending a good amount of time outdoors and in the sun (not quite my goal, but it worked out well enough!).

Other preventive measures: SPF-rated clothing and always wearing sunscreen no matter the weather or time of day (you still get rays when it is cloudy or in the morning/afternoon, for example). One common mistake people make is to apply too little sunscreen - it does need to be slathered a bit heavier than you might think to match the SPF level on the label. If you're around water/on a boat, anything like that, be extra diligent to protect from reflected rays as well.
posted by warble at 3:13 PM on June 25, 2007

I'm ultra-fair in a Woody Allen "I don't tan, I stroke" sort of way, which makes living in L.A. an interesting challenge. Some great recommendations already (esp. from Mozzie); I would just remind you to remember to apply sunscreen to places that are easy to forget, but where you can still get a nasty burn -- the places I've forgotten (and paid for it later) include my ears, the back of my neck, and the top of my feet.
posted by scody at 3:16 PM on June 25, 2007

Anti-oxidants in your diet may also help stave off skin cancer (and other cancers). Make sure you take regular garden-variety good care of yourself -- eat lots of bright-colored fruits and vegetables (for the anti-oxidants) and lots of fish if it's available and safe, and get enough sleep so your body can rest and repair itself.
posted by occhiblu at 3:22 PM on June 25, 2007

Everyone around you will probably be running around in shorts and t-shirts, or maybe even less. If you burn like I do, you just can't dress that way and be out in the sun all day without catching fire and feeling miserable for the next week. Sunblock is better than nothing, but it wears off and is slimy and I burn anyway. So the best solution, as others have mentioned, is to ignore vanity and cover more skin with clothes.

Better than a floppy hat, I have found, is a hat with a really wide and stiff brim (like a cowboy hat, but there are a lot of other designs out there that might be more appropriate to your fashion sense) -- a brim that sticks out, rather than hangs down, keeps the sun off your neck better. If all of the hats you can find make you feel like a doofus, then buy something really outlandish (a huge Stetson, or a mariachi hat, or a big pink church-lady hat) and embrace the silliness. It beats carcinoma, you know?

At a minimum wear a t-shirt, but better is something with a collar (like a hawaiian shirt, or a polo shirt) because those protect the back of your neck. Better yet is a long-sleeve shirt; even with the sleeves rolled up to the mid-forearm, there is more coverage. Modern synthetics are pretty comfortable, while a nice cotton or linen shirt can look really sharp. Watch out for loose weaves -- they are nice in a breeze, but you can get burnt right through the fabric.

When you do get burned (it is pretty inevitable, sometimes), 100% aloe vera lotion feels really good afterwards. It won't prevent skin cancer, but it can make it possible to sleep when the sheet feels like sandpaper on your new burn.

Lastly, if you are going to a naturist camp, or someone invites you to go skinny-dipping, don't forget to put sunblock on your genitals and your pasty-white butt, even if it feels socially awkward to be greasing up your private parts in front of other people. A burn down there hurts like no one's business, and will put you out of business for a long time, if you know what I mean.
posted by Forktine at 3:24 PM on June 25, 2007

What's the sunscreen that the FDA won't approve in the US, but is used all over the rest of the world? I'm sure this is no help, but apparently the stuff is AWESOMENATERS, and can be found fairly easily online.

Little help, anyone?
posted by TomMelee at 3:24 PM on June 25, 2007

I didn't see it mentioned, but it bears mentioning - wear SPF lip balm, too. It will last longer than sunscreen and helps to prevent cold sores if you're prone to them. I find that prolonged UV exposure triggers them in me.
posted by cabingirl at 3:38 PM on June 25, 2007

Oh, and Neutrogena Dry Touch sunblock really is dry to the touch and less gunky than the usual lotion.
posted by cabingirl at 3:40 PM on June 25, 2007

The sunscreen product that you speak of is Meroxyl. It has only been approved by the FDA recently and only found in pricy chick lotions at department stores. If you cannot get Meroxyl whose patent is held by L'Oreal then you need to get product with Avobenzone. If you are in Europe the lines with Meroxyl are Garnier Ambre Solaire while L' Oreal has a specific line using Meroxyl

I am THE queen of emollients.
posted by jadepearl at 3:42 PM on June 25, 2007

As you may know, exposure to the UV component of sunlight produces vitamin D, and as I read your question, it occurred to me to wonder whether increasing the level of vitamin D precursors in your system might help to mop up any UV that got through your sun-screen defenses, and prevent it from doing the damage it otherwise would.

According to a Wikipedia article, Vitamin D3 is produced from cholesterol from animal sources, and vitamin D2 is produced from ergosterol from plants. According to various articles I found, ergosterol is found in many vegetables, but especially in yeast and mushrooms.

So a steady pre-trip diet of mushroom omelets, perhaps?

The linked Wikipedia article also says:

Cholecalciferol [vitamin D3] is very sensitive to UV radiation and will rapidly, but reversibly break down to form supra-sterols, which can further irreversibly convert to tachysterol.

This sounds to me as if D3 itself could have protective effects from sunlight exposure, so loading up on that might help, too.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on vitamin D says:

Ironically, there are indications that vitamin D deficiency may lead to skin cancer.

which might tend to support the idea that vitamin D could protect against UV damage.
posted by jamjam at 4:13 PM on June 25, 2007

I live in a place where the sun exposure can be fierce but the temperatures top out at 30C (that's 86F in funny money) I don't know how that relates to where you are.

I find a long sleeved cotton shirt is great and much better for all day use than trying to slap sun screen all over me (obviously I still put it on face/legs etc). I've tried shirts made from special materials which are high SPF but I find they're sufficiently unpleasant to wear that I'd rather wear cotton (and the cotton does the job and stays cool). The weight of cotton I'm talking about is like a very heavy weight tee shirt material, really thicker than almost all tee shirts would be made from.

Hats - yes cowboy style hard brims over floppy brims for me.
posted by southof40 at 4:16 PM on June 25, 2007

In case you do get burned despite all the good prevention advice here, know the recommended first aid for burns (including radiation burns like sunburn): actively cool the area for at least 20 minutes as soon as you notice the burn. 20 minutes is going to feel excessive - a quick rinse in a cold shower will absolutely make you feel better for a bit, but a LONG cold shower will help stop further damage to your skin. Obviously don't stay in there to the point that you get hypothermia, and if you use ice packs make sure to keep a layer of fabric between them and your skin to prevent frostbite.

Afterwards, slather on lots of aloe (keep the bottle in the fridge!) and drink plenty of water to keep yourself well hydrated. I like the aloe with lidocaine (it's usually blue) - the lidocaine is a mild anesthetic that will help you hurt a bit less.
posted by vytae at 4:47 PM on June 25, 2007

Nobody has said it explicitly, but be sure the sunscreen you're using is photostable. Most of the sunscreens available in the US aren't, which means they degrade within about two hours of exposure to sunlight. After that, they're worse than useless, because the process of breaking down itself makes your skin more susceptible to free radicals than it would have been with no sunscreen at all.

There's a list of photostable sunscreens available in the US here, but you need to sign up for a (free) account to see the page.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you want protection from both UVA and UVB rays (UVB causes sunburns, but UVA causes wrinkles, and both can give you cancer.). Most sunscreens trumpet on their packaging that they're UVA/UVB protective, but generally the UVA protection they offer is minimal. The best UVA filters aren't available in the U.S. yet (with the exception of Mexoryl, as stated above, but it's expensive as hell.).

I think the best all-around sunscreen with regards to cost, stability, and UVA protection is Neutrogena DryTouch Sunblock SPF 55 or 70 (not the 30 or 45 - they're not stable. The "helioplex" in the 55 and 70 is the stabilizing formulation).
posted by granted at 4:54 PM on June 25, 2007

I'm a redhead in QLD, Australia. I burn like no-one's business. I also love surfing, so I have experience in *not* burning. I have a 10 second burn time unprotected, worse in some areas (yes, I've timed this).

1). No. About the best you can do is treat the problem as soon as you notice it - cool baths/showers initially, followed by aloe vera application every 10min until it stops ouching. Also, drink lots of water.

2). Spray ons are patchy, I find. I stick with gunk. Sports gunk, at that. If I can, I rinse off before reapplying to *dry* skin. Otherwise, over the top it goes.

3). Cover up. Big hat, wrist-length (UV-proof) sleeves with a collar, cyclist's gloves, long pants, covered shoes. Try to go for natural fabrics as much as possible - cotton and linen are good for this, if you can find them in sufficient opacity. Applying sunscreen under the clothing is also a good idea, especially on arms, and around the neck. Lip balm is also a good idea - reapply frequently. Stand in shade whenever you can. Drink lots of water. Always carry sunscreen with you.
posted by ysabet at 4:57 PM on June 25, 2007

Keep a special eye on body parts that don't have a lot of padding underneath, like your collarbone. In my superpale experience, those are the first to burn if the SPF lotion is wearing off.

If you take any medications, check to see if they make you more photosensitive. Antibiotics are a typical example, but there are plenty of others.
posted by gnomeloaf at 5:21 PM on June 25, 2007


It's a complete line of clothing for men and women in a fancy UV-resistant fabric. It's soft and comfy like cotton, yet it blocks the sun much better (speaking as someone who has gotten sunburned through a long-sleeved T-shirt).
posted by ottereroticist at 5:36 PM on June 25, 2007

My favorite trick when I do get burned (a thing that used to happen quite frequently to my nigh-translucent skin before I was as sun vigilant as I am now) is to sponge on vinegar (the white distilled kind or apple cider). I don't know why it works, but it really helps, particularly when followed by the aloe with lidocaine.
posted by mostlymartha at 5:45 PM on June 25, 2007

Long sleeves, long trousers and a hat. Lots of sunscreen when that's not possible (factor 30). If you're swimming get yourself a rash vest, and for the ultra paraniod approach you can get floppy cloth hats with a chinstrap designed for swimming in.
posted by singingfish at 5:56 PM on June 25, 2007

this stuff is terrific for when you've gotten too much sun. It's cooling, not sticky like aloe vera can be, and it really does help reduce a bit of redness. My boyfriend burned rather terribly last summer and said the aloe vera was stinging, but the Neutrogena stuff made him feel a lot less miserable.

I'm a "never tans" person too and what I usually do is apply sunscreen every half hour - I set my watch or cell phone to remind me. I'd do it every 20 minutes if I were somewhere where the sun was stronger (usually I do the half-hour thing on the beach in New England).

The spray-on sunscreen is no good, IMO. I always miss a weird spot, like the top of my foot or behind my ear. The Neutrogena ultra dry sheer stuff has worked the best for me so far.
posted by sutel at 6:13 PM on June 25, 2007

Seconding Mozzie's and ottereroticist's pointers to Solumbra/sunprecautions — I'm not as burn prone as some people are, but I have some of their clothing and it's pretty good.
posted by hattifattener at 7:12 PM on June 25, 2007

If you have a part in your hair, don't forget to put sunscreen there. Every summer I have to learn that again.

If you're planning to reapply sunscreen frequently (and you're pretty much going to have to), I swear by the oil-free stuff. Anything else will turn me into a huge greaseball by the end of the day. If you're going to be using as much sunscreen as you think, you may also want to choose a noncomedogenic line, at least for your face.

Rule of thumb is that it takes at least an ounce (a shot glass's worth) of sunscreen to cover your body. Use more, of course, if you have more surface area or less clothing. And do the math beforehand -- if your bottle has eight ounces of sunscreen, know that you're going to get eight doses out of it. And if you're using another dose every two hours, realize the bottle will go faster than you'd assumed. Maybe you should bring another bottle, or ten more, or a case. (Take into account that by day five, people who hadn't thought they were quite that white will be trying to "borrow" your sunscreen.)

Double-check your prescriptions to be sure they don't increase your sun sensitivity. If you don't have the bottles anymore, or the labels peeled off or whatever, you can call the pharmacist to ask if sun sensitivity is a known side effect.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:29 PM on June 25, 2007

Sunglasses every second you are outside, aspirin immediately after being in the sun for a long time and don't forget the part in your hair. Pull your hair back if you can and if you can't do that spray hairspray with spf (or if you don't mind your hair being kind of gross spray some on your part) or just change your part all the time. Nothing is worse than having a burnt scalp and skin flakes that look like dandruff for the next week.
posted by whoaali at 9:34 PM on June 25, 2007

drinking lots of water

drink plenty of water to keep yourself well hydrated

Also, drink lots of water.

Drink lots of water.

This cannot be repeated enough. Hydration is a great prophylactic against burning. Also, if you'll be sweating a lot, make sure to replace your salt.
posted by kittyprecious at 6:06 AM on June 26, 2007

This may have been alluded to upthread, but I don't think it was spelled out directly. Check your sunscreen ingredients list to make sure it actually has UVA protection in it, no matter what it claims to protect against. To protect against UVA, it should have at least one of: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane (also listed as Parsol 1789 or avobenzone, not to be mistaken with oxybenzone, which protects against UVB). (Note: in trying to see whether my Canadian-based information was relevant to America, I came across this website which has rated sunscreens by their health hazards and the effectiveness of their UV protection, and has lots of America-specific info about products as well as general info and tips about sun protection.)

Also, there are two ways for clothing to be protective against the sun. The first is to buy specially designed clothing, such as in these shirts from MEC, or presumably others listed upthread. The second is a chemical that you can wash into any of your clothes, like Granger's Sunshield.
posted by carmen at 6:21 AM on June 26, 2007

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