Friday, June 23, 2006

Protect Your Skin From The Sun With Clothing

Protect Your Skin From The Sun With Clothing
By Lori Stryker, B.Sc., B.H.Ec., B.Ed.
Sun Exposure: What Are The Concerns?

Our skin is our most important protective organ. It constitutes
a vast surface area, and as such it is vulnerable to being damaged by excess sun exposure. Sunlight triggers a series of beneficial chemical reactions in the skin which lead to the formation of vitamin D, a nutrient essential for health. Sunlight is composed, in part, of ultraviolet (UV) radiation which, when absorbed by the skin in excess of what are safe absorption levels, damages cellular DNA, Langerhans cells responsible for normal immunofunction1 as well as other processes which can all lead to skin cells becoming cancerous.

Skin cancer is on the rise, even amongst those who have grown up using sunscreen 2. Several factors are contributing to this increase. A diminishing and disappearing ozone layer, the earth’s natural UV filter, is one reason. Lifestyle changes which contribute to increased exposure time in the sun from more leisure, disposable income and active lifestyles are also contributing and possible synergistic factors. In addition, fashion changes have dictated less coverage of the body while out in the sun, also increasing exposure despite sunscreen use to replace textile coverage. Another consideration is the fact that one in ten people diagnosed with melanomas have a family history of this disease.3

Everyone is potentially at risk for skin cancer, regardless of how dark the skin is, or how “easily” one tans. Those on the upper end of the risk spectrum are fair skinned, blonde or red-headed individuals and/or those with blue or green eyes. Children and teenagers are also at an increased risk because of the amount of time they spend outdoors compared to adults.

What Can Happen To Unprotected Skin?

When the skin is chronically exposed to UV radiation, whether from sunlight or tanning beds (which multiplies the normal risk from natural UV exposure from sunlight), skin cells in the outer layer of the skin absorb radiation and this can lead to DNA mutations that develop into basal cell or squamous cell, non-melanoma carcinomas. Most skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas 4, but if they are left untreated, they can lead to aggressive, fatal forms of skin cancer.

Malignant melanomas also begin in the outer layers of the skin and develop from intense, infrequent exposure to UV radiation, such as when vacationing during the winter months in a hot location, or getting the occasional sunburn. This type of skin cancer begins as pigmented moles, and if untreated, invade the deeper layers of the skin such as the dermis, (see Basic Skin Care) and could metastasize once in contact with blood vessels and lymphatic tissue possibly spreading the cancer to other parts of the body.

What Is A Sun Tan?
A darkening of the skin due to increased melanin, the skin’s natural pigment, in response to UV damage is not a protection against future UV exposure. A sun tan is not the skin’s natural sunscreen, as some believe, but rather evidence that the skin has had to respond defensively against UV absorption in excess. Tanning results in permanently damaged collagen and elastin which leads to premature wrinkling, as well as multiplying significantly the susceptibility of developing skin cancer, often decades after the sunburn or sun tan.

Are Sunscreens and Sunblocks Enough?
Health organizations worldwide are recognizing that using sunscreens and sunblocks exclusively are not reducing the rates of skin cancer in the general population. Age groups that in the past rarely suffered from skin cancer, such as children and teenagers, are developing skin cancer despite a lifetime of sunscreen and sunblock usage. Part of the reason for this is that sunscreens/sunblocks are rarely used frequently enough. In addition, patches of skin can be left exposed and unprotected. In addition, it is easy to miss patches of skin and leave these completely unprotected. Using cosmetics with an SPF (sun protection factor) or a natural sunblock, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in larger particle size (not micronized to ultrafine or fine levels) contribute to skin protection, but are not sufficient by themselves to provide adequate coverage. The use of textiles is now being recommended by many health organizations to decrease the impact of skin cancer on the general population.

How Can Textiles Protect the Skin?
In the past, ancient and ethnic cultures did not have access to lab-derived cosmetic formulations to protect their skin. Textiles were easily accessible and effective in skin protection. When one examines cultures that live in typically hot, sunny places, certain similarities are evident in their common use of textiles.

Native North American First Nations peoples such as the Navajo and Hopi who live in the southern United States wore tightly woven, woollen chief blankets and blanket dresses to keep their bodies warm at night and cool during the day. The intelligence of this clothing practice can be seen in their design, which was loose fitting to allow for air circulation, cooling the body during the day while the tight weave of the cloth did not allow for ultraviolet penetration to the skin underneath. Animal skins were also used, also for their insulating properties at night and superior sun protection during the day. Cotton was available and used, as cotton effectively wicks moisture, but is most effective for sun protection if the weave is tight. Hopi men also wore sun visors, made of stretched leather on a wooden frame, while they spent hours in the hot sun weaving cloth for their tribe 5.

In a different part of the world, the African and Middle Eastern desert hosts the Tuareg and Bedouin, respectively. In these cultures, we also see effective and intelligent use of textiles to offer sun protection. Tuareg women wore skirt-like dresses with baggy trousers underneath gathered at the ankle. They also wore a haik, or a shawl, made of wool that spanned the length of their bodies. Tuareg men wore long shirts reaching below the knee over trousers, and a tagelmoust, which is a cloth covering their head, mouth and eyes 5.

Bedouin women wore sarongs or togas that covered their entire bodies, with a shash or burga covering their heads. Bedouin men wore shirts and pants with a white cloth over their heads. Cotton was the main fibre used for its wicking and sun protective properties 5.

These cultures share common design and textile features that made their ethnic costumes effective for sun protection:
  • Facilitated air circulation through loose, billowy designs.
  • Clothing covered the entire body- arms, legs and face.
  • Colours are dark or white
  • Natural fibres were used, such as wool or cotton.
  • Fabric was tightly woven- the tighter the weave, the more effective the textile is at blocking UV radiation.
How Can You Protect Yourself from the Sun?

  1. Limit sun exposure between 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  2. Examine your skin thoroughly every three months.
  3. If you choose to wear a sunscreen or sunblock that does not contain micronized pigments (see Titanium dioxide-Toxic or Safe?) follow the directions for its use. It should be treated as medication whereby the directions must be followed exactly.
  4. Start teaching sun safe habits to small children early. Babies and toddlers must be protected with hats and eyes covered. Cosmetic sunscreens should not be used on babies less than 7 months of age.
  5. Wear protective clothing, including hats, sunglasses, long sleeved shirts and pants that are made from tightly woven, natural cloth and are loose fitting.
The sun is a source of enjoyment and health for all of us, but care must be taken to
preserve our long term health, especially with the depletion of our ozone layer, which was designed to filter out harmful radiation from the sun. We can do our part to better our odds against the devastation of skin cancer for ourselves and our children by following simple, safe rules including intelligent use of textiles when out in the sun.

  1. Awake! “Skin Cancer How to Protect Yourself” June 8, 2005 Watchtower and Bible Tract Society of New York Inc.
  2. Wood, Vicki Canadian Health & Lifestyle Spring 2004
  3. Wood, Vicki Canadian Health & Lifestyle Spring 2004
  4. Awake! “Skin Cancer How to Protect Yourself” June 8, 2005 Watchtower and Bible Tract Society of New York Inc.
  5. Iaboni, Lori Ethnic Costumes of the Desert and Tundra, University of British Columbia; 1997
  6. Stryker, Lori “Titanium Dioxide: Toxic or Safe?”, The Organic Makeup Co. Inc.; Toronto:2005
  8. Stryker, Lori “Basic Skin Care” The Organic Makeup Co. Inc.; Toronto: 2005