Skin-cancer watchers say sun-safety index merely fair warning

June 30, 1994|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

Know your skin.

That's the first step when determining how to use the information from the National Weather Service's new ultraviolet radiation index, says Dr. Kenneth Judd, a dermatologist. The index is intended to help people avoid overexposure to the sun, which contributes 700,000 to 1 million new cases of skin cancer each year, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The sun index is helpful," says Dr. Judd, who's on staff at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. "But you need to know what type of skin you have." And how to protect it by using a combination of common sense and sunscreens.

The index ranges from minimal to very high and suggests the length of time -- given different skin types -- a person may stay in the sun before overexposure occurs.

For instance, a low index of 3-4 means fair-skinned people can spend 15 to 20 minutes in the sun without protection. People with darker skin can remain out for 75 to 90 minutes before facing sun damage. Parents need to take special note of how long their children are exposed, says Dr. Stephen Feldman, a Greater Baltimore Medical Center pediatrician.

"About 80 percent of all overexposure occurs before the age of 18," the pediatrician says. "Why? Because kids are out in the sun all of the time. People usually don't think of kids out playing baseball as sunbathing. But they are."

Regardless of age, skin type or index, the sun is more dangerous at certain times, says Dr. Risa Jampel, a dermatologist at Sinai hospital. "From about 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the rays are most damaging," she says, adding that the index can change throughout the day as the weather changes.

Experts advise covering sensitive body parts and using a sun block, although the FDA has not approved sunscreens for children younger than six months.

Sunscreens contain chemicals that theoretically can be

absorbed into the skin, Dr. Jampel says, and no studies have determined how this affects children. "Children should not be in the direct sun anyway," she says.

"When looking for sunscreens, a person needs to have an SPF of 15 or more," says Dr. Bonnie Epstein, a dermatologist with an office in Baltimore County's Greenspring Station.

SPF means "sun protection factor," and the numbers are explained this way: If you know you can stay in the sun for five minutes without burning, then an SPF of 15 means you can stay in the sun 15 minutes multiplied by five minutes without burning, explains Dr. Jampel.

However, studies have not clearly indicated that an SPF higher than 15 follows that equation, she says. Dermatologists generally recommend 15 because the lower SPFs do not provide enough time, she says.

People who have had cancer are the only ones who might want to look for even the slight extra benefit of a sunscreen with an SPF of 45 protection, Dr. Epstein adds.

"What can complicate matters is individuals taking medication that could make the skin more sensitive to the sun," Dr. Judd says. An example is diuretics that could make you more susceptible to getting a burn, he says.

Sunscreens must be appropriate to activities, Dr. Epstein says. "If [people] perspire heavily or are into sports, they should wear waterproof or sports-proof sunscreen. And they have to put on a good, thick layer and not miss any spots."

Sunscreens contain many different active ingredients. Some are chemical-free, which means the active ingredient is titanium dioxide. They act by physically blocking the sun's rays. Other products may contain chemicals such as methoxy cinnamate or oxybenzone, among others. They act by absorbing the harmful portion of the ultraviolet rays before it reaches the skin.

Sunscreens can now be found in products from lotion to makeup. The trend toward adding a sunscreen to these products began about four years ago, says Paula Begoun, who publishes the Cosmetics Counter Update, a bi-monthly newsletter.

"Adding sunscreen to products is absolutely the best thing the cosmetics industry has ever done," says Ms. Begoun, who's been called the Ralph Nader of the cosmetics industry.

However, she warns that products only claiming to offer protection from the environment can be misleading. "If it does not have an SPF number on the label, then it is bogus," she says.

Adding sunscreens to products such as makeup foundation was the industry's response to what consumers are looking for, says Joan Lollar, spokeswoman for the Maybelline company. When the Memphis-based company did a 1993 survey of 5,000 people, it found that 31 percent of consumers in the 25-to-49-year-old bracket specifically look for cosmetics with sunscreen.

"Overall, the consumer generally is looking for products that are good for them, good for their skin," she says, "not products that just make them look good."

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