The sea, a beach, and loads of sun - for many people these are the main ingredients of a perfect holiday. A corollary is that the darker the summer suntan, the better.
But with 22,000 new cases of malignant skin cancer a year, experts warn against excessive sunbathing. They urge people to change their thinking and protect their skin well in sunny weather.
'We've got to get away from the false notion that being sun-tanned is beautiful and healthy,' said Eva Kalbheim, spokesperson for Bonn-based German Cancer Aid.
A suntan, she explained, was a defensive skin reaction to produce more of the pigment melanin to protect itself from too much harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
Large amounts of UV radiation damage the DNA in skin cells and can even lead to skin cancer. Sunscreen protection should begin during the car trip to the holiday destination.
'UVA radiation (long-wave UV radiation, which makes up most of the UV radiation that reaches the earth from the sun) passes through window glass,' noted Hans-Georg Dauer, a dermatologist from Cologne.
Dauer recommends shades for the car's back-seat windows so that children are not left unprotected.
Kalbheim said that people should avoid exposure to direct sunlight as much as possible.
'You also get a suntan in the shade - it's slower, but healthier,' she remarked. If you are out in the sun, though, you should protect your head and body with close-woven clothing such as cotton.
Children under three years should always be kept out of the sun.
Kalbheim advises adults to stay mainly in the shade during their first days on holiday so that their skin can become accustomed to the high UV radiation.
There are some rules regarding sunscreens too. Dauer said that a sunscreen be it a lotion or spray should be applied 'thoroughly, generously and, above all, punctually - preferably a half
-hour before sunbathing'.
Using a sunscreen is especially important in the mountains and near the equator, but also at the seaside because water reflects the sun's rays.
'And make sure to reapply sunscreen,' Dauer reminded. After 20 minutes in saltwater, even 'waterproof' sunscreens wash off to a large extent.
Reapplying sunscreen does not increase the amount of protection - expressed as a number called the sun protection factor (SPF) - provided by the initial application. The SPF listed on the label indicates how much longer than normal a person can be exposed to sunlight before getting sunburn, explained Uwe Reinhold, head of the Bonn Medical Centre's dermatology department.
'The skin of most Europeans starts to tan or burn after about 20 minutes in the sun,' Reinhold said. 'SPF 4 increases the time fourfold - to about 80 minutes.'
Sometimes even sunscreen-protected skin reacts to sunlight with a burning sensation, itching or painful blisters. This is popularly known as a 'sun allergy'.
The most common form of this condition, polymorphous light dermatosis, generally affects areas of skin that have not got accustomed to the sun. Its cause is high UVA radiation.
Experts recommend sunscreens that give strong protection against UVA radiation and have as few odiferous constituents - which can cause allergic reactions - as possible. For people prone to a sun allergy, doctors suggest taking cortisone or antihistamines, which are also hay-fever remedies. A curd-cheese poultice and aspirin are effective first aids, Dauer noted.
Some companies sell UV test strips and UV dosimeters, which you attach to your skin. They signal when your skin type has absorbed a critical amount of UV radiation. But Reinhold said it was more important to develop a feeling for how much sun your skin can take. Related medicine news :1
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