Herbal Sunscreen Info to Know

Keeping damage at bay

| May/June 1998

When my friends and I were in our teens, we thought that sun care meant smearing on baby oil and baking for hours with foil reflectors tucked under our chins.

But I was born with pale skin—I burn after only twenty unprotected minutes in the sun. When I added baby oil, I reduced my burn time to ten minutes.

Now, hopefully not too late, sun care tops the list of my health-care concerns. Those of you with more pigment in your skin might do well to join me: Skin pigment, called melanin, may protect you from short-term sunburn discomfort, but it won’t protect you from long-term sun damage.

A Lifetime of Sun

Although fair-skinned people are more vulnerable to sun damage, long-term sun exposure will eventually change anyone’s skin for the worse. Spending hours in the sun, day after day, before age eighteen probably causes the most damage, according to The Merck Manual of Medical Information (Merck & Co., 1997).

A tan is a signal that your skin is trying to keep radiation, or ultraviolet rays, from being absorbed by the rest of the body. The tan occurs because the skin produces more melanin, which has a brownish color (freckles are also made of melanin). Although melanin is the body’s method of protecting itself from the sun, it’s not foolproof. Long-term exposure to sunlight thickens the uppermost layer of the skin (epidermis). Damage to deeper layers of the skin can cause coarse wrinkles; yellow, rough, thin, or leather-tough skin; and precancerous growths, called keratoses.

Ultraviolet rays that cause tanning and sunburn are known as UVB rays. As exposure to these short wavelength rays accumulates over the years, it can lead to dry, wrinkled skin, prematurely aged skin, and skin cancer. Another type of ultraviolet rays are UVA rays, and they penetrate deeply into the lower levels of the skin, also causing premature aging, wrinkling, and skin cancer. UVA rays can penetrate clouds and car and home windows, and excessive exposure to UVA rays may trigger malignant melanoma, a fatal form of skin cancer. (For more information about skin cancer and herbal preventives, see page 33.)

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