Rub Some Dirt on It: Rethinking the “T” out of G.T.L.

April 15, 2010

With the weather in D.C. finally beginning to warm up, many of us will be bringing our books and our bikinis to the front lawn to sunbathe and study. I won’t be joining the masses since, though, I am embedded in a culture that still favors the bleached look over the bronzed one. While this seems odd to many of my friends, Americans were hiding behind their parasols too until the 1920s, when fashion designer and icon Coco Chanel spent a little too much time in the sun on a cruise through the French Riviera and inadvertently started a trend.

While most of our fashion choices come with a price tag attached, sun rays are free. Their real price, however, comes in the form of health risks and medical disclaimers. Lying out in the sun seems fairly harmless, or even beneficial thanks to all of that vitamin D your skin will be generating. And yet, cultivating that coffee color this summer could cause serious skin problems—like skin cancer and premature skin aging—for the future. Unfortunately, tanning booths aren’t any safer, since they emit the same radiation as the sun.

The light that the sun emits contains two types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA and UVB. UVB is the stuff that burns the upper layer of skin, causing sunburns. UVA is what gives you that auburn glow. It penetrates the lower layers of skin, and activates cells that produce melanin, the brown pigment that we refer to as a tan. Those of us with naturally dark skin will tan more easily, since our cells are capable of producing more melanin in a shorter time period. UVA also damages the skin’s cellular DNA by producing genetic mutations that can lead to skin cancer. UVA is also responsible for breaking up collagen, which leads to early wrinkles, reduced elasticity, and firmness of the skin.

Many of us still won’t be able to resist the appeal of soaking in the sun, so we’ll need some SPF (Sun Protection Factor) to help us out. How does SPF work, and how much do you need? If it normally takes you five minutes of sun exposure to begin getting a burn, and you apply an SPF 15, it will take you 15 times longer to develop a burn. You can lounge in the sun for 75 minutes before beginning to burn. Most individuals need an SPF with a strength of about 30-45.

Sunscreen, unlike sun block, needs to be reapplied throughout the day. Sun block and sunscreen are not synonymous. Sunblock, the stronger and opaque option, blocks almost all of the UVA and UVB radiation that would normally reach your skin, and its ingredients are not easily broken down or disintegrated. This means that, normally, it only needs to be applied once during the day. Sunscreen, on the other hand, is transparent, but its ingredients break down faster once exposed to sunlight, and not all of the radiation is blocked out.

Other options to consider, especially if you don’t have the time to lie out in the sun anyway, are sunless tanning products and self-tanners. Self-tanners avoid exposure to radiation, and contain, instead, an ingredient called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). Dihydroxyacetone definitely sounds more threatening than some good old sunshine. But, in fact, it is innocuous. DNA reacts with dead cells on the surface layer of skin to temporarily darken the skin’s pigmentation. The coloring gradually fades away, as dead skin cells shed and drop away from the skin. It won’t be authentic, but for once, the artificial stuff is safer and healthier than the natural stuff. So you don’t have to sacrifice fashion for health or health for fashion. You can have both at once, as long as you remember to keep SPFs and DHA nearby.

Sadaf can’t rub the sunscreen into her back, so give her a hand at squreshi@georgetownvoice.com


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