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What The SPF?!

by Dr. Katie Baker, ND/LMP, of Stone Turtle Health
posted 22 July 2013

 

It may not always be pretty, but sun protection is a significant piece of good health practices. Photo by Hello Turkey Toe, Jun '11

On the Fourth of July, I was one of those friendly volunteers at the South Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival.  I did what most optimistic Seattleites do- even though it was overcast in the morning – I slathered on the sunscreen before leaving the house.

I biked through Fremont and down to the Center for Wooden Boats, sweating through my shorts and hoodie, only to sit miserably as the wind blew and the clouds continued to roll in.  Since I am a doctor, I had volunteered for the first aid tent in the morning, which usually consists of handing out sunscreen and band-aids while pulling splinters from the tiny pudgy hands of overly-enthusiastic toy boat builders.

Not just for the beach. Remember sun protection whenever out in the sun - including at Fremont's summer activities like the strolling the Sunday Market. Photo by K. Lindsay, May '11

No takers that morning, so I went to work my afternoon shift on the dock. The sun came out and I reveled in it for four hours, warming up, then starting to sweat again. Finally, I rode the bus back home with my bike and fell asleep before the fireworks.

When I woke up in the morning, I was shocked to look in the mirror and see that I had turned into a lobster except for the white circles and lines around my eyes, showing where my sunglasses had been. What did I do wrong? I forgot pretty much everything that I tell my patients about sunscreen use.

What Went Wrong

I didn’t reapply sunscreen after biking and sweating my way to the park.  I didn’t reapply it before working on the docks. I didn’t reapply it again after 2 hours of working in the sun.  I probably didn’t even put enough on in the first place.

In sunscreens, look for something that will provide the best protection for you, and your child. Photo by Robert S. Donovan, Apr '09

In 2011, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) made some changes to the rules on sunscreen.  They limited the products that could call themselves “broad range” sun protection and set an upper limit of labeling at SPF 50.  SPF, which stands for Sun Protection Factor, is a measurement of how long you are protected (SPF 15 = 15 times longer than with no sunscreen), assuming of course that you apply it appropriately, reapply it every 2 hours and don’t sweat it off or get wet, even if it is labeled ‘sweatproof’ or ‘water resistant.’  Not many folks do that.

New Findings On Aging

There are new findings that show promise for long-term use of sunscreen, and minimizing the appearance of aging and wrinkles. A recent Seattle Times newspaper article discusses these findings, noting that in this Australian study, 900 people under the age of 55 were tracked for 4 years on their sunscreen use.  Measuring the damage done to the backs of their hands, those who used sunscreen on an almost-daily basis had hands that appeared 24% younger than their non-sunscreen using counterparts.

While not always necessary, sun protection can be a good idea at all outdoor activities - including the Groundspeak Block Party in August! Photo by K. Lindsay, Aug '12

The subjects in this study are all relatively young, showing that the damage inflicted doesn’t wait until the seventh or eighth decade.  However, as we get even older, the odds of getting skin cancer from sun exposure rise dramatically.

UVA rays cause melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, and UVB rays cause the most common forms.  Sunscreens now have to account for both UVA and UVB protection.

Clothes, And Children

What about clothes? Always, the best protection is to wear a hat and long-sleeved top with pants.  There are even clothes that are labeled with UV protective coating in the material for extra protection.  For children, certainly, making sure that they stay covered up is important.

Be sure to provide adequate coverage for the children, and teach them good habits of sun protection. Photo by Liz West, Jul '06

When you can’t do that, or it’s too miserably hot for long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat, it is important to make sure that you cover your child with a natural or kid-friendly sunscreen.  Children have a higher surface area than adults (a higher skin-to-body ratio, just think of those gangly arms and legs) and therefore absorb more through their skin than adults.  Child-specific or natural sunscreens will help minimize any chemical exposures.

Be sure to cover them up before heading to the Fremont Sunday Market, or before heading out the door to travel the Burke-Gilman Trail.

On vacation, Dr. Katie Baker covers up with sunscreen and sun glasses - ready to enjoy! Photo provided by Dr. Katie Baker

The FDA has a parent handout on infants and sunscreen. The bottom line is that, in most cases, sunscreen is not advisable for infants and toddlers.  Keeping them out of the sun during the hot parts of the day, and keeping them covered up, are better ideas.  Remember that UV rays can penetrate car windows and umbrellas, so don’t count on them for protection.

Watch It On The Water

As for water, we are lucky to live near so many beautiful bodies of water, and we have some beautiful fountains in the city.  Water is a great reflector of sunlight and any time spent by the Lake Washington Ship Canal, on a boat in Lake Union, or on a dock, even when not going in the water, increases sun exposure from all the reflective surfaces, so don’t forget to cover up and apply the sunscreen more regularly.

Also, no ‘waterproof’ sunscreen truly exists, and you should always apply sunscreen more frequently when swimming or running through the sprinklers.

About the Author:  Katie Baker, a Naturopathic Physician, practices at Stone Turtle Health at 6204B – 8th Ave NW.  She is also a member of the Rotary Club of Fremont, a native Seattleite, and is a graduate of Bastyr University.  For more information on her, and her practice, visit www.stoneturtlehealth.com


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Text ©2013 by Dr. Katie Baker

Content ©2013 Kirby Lindsay.  This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws.  Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.

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