In order to spend time at sea with pleasure and health benefits, you need to be aware of the dangers of sunlight. We talk about what you should pay attention to, and also share the opinion of doctors on this matter.
The danger of sunlight
Sailing on a sunny day is a delightful pastime. But besides the fact that the sun improves mood, we all know about its dangers.
Dr. Karin Koopmans is a doctor of dermatology and also a keen yachtsman. She explores the coastal waters of Europe. Karin explains the effect of sunlight on our body: “Let's start with the skin. Sunlight makes it thicker and stimulates the production of pigments, so you get a tan. But the downside is that sunlight destroys the elastic fibers in the skin and makes it wrinkled. Even worse, sunlight can damage the DNA of skin cells. This can later lead to skin cancer.
Sunlight is good for the body because it stimulates the production of vitamin D. This vitamin is essential for building bone mass and protecting against internal cancers. So, vitamin D helps in the prevention of bowel cancer.
At the same time, sunlight also suppresses the activity of some immune cells, especially skin cells. This, by the way, is used in the treatment of psoriasis or eczema. The downside is that you become more susceptible to colds, etc. Finally, ultraviolet light can damage your eyes and lead to cataracts."
There are three ways to avoid sun damage: behavioral precautions, mechanical precautions, and chemical precautions. Behavioral measures are to stay away from the sun during periods of its greatest intensity. On a typical sailing day, this may not be possible.
Mechanical measures include protection by clothing or other means. For example, wearing a hat and sunglasses, light clothing with UV protection, using a bimini while swimming and a canopy or other sun shade in the port. A bimini is a practical way to get shade from the sun while swimming. Finally, chemical precautions include sunscreen and lip protection.
Sailors are at increased risk of sun damage. But how many of us are really aware of the risks that exist? Many yachtsmen neglect the use of sunscreen. Complaints include sticky hands, greasy stains, and difficulty rinsing off the cream at the end of the day. Usually people try to “just stay out of the sun”. That being said, most cruisers report using mechanical protection measures most often. Among the most popular are hats, sunglasses, clothes and biminis.
Cruisers in Europe tend to feel more relaxed. A hat and sunglasses are the main measures of their protection. At the same time, cruisers in equatorial regions are more likely to choose long sleeves and trousers. They also use biminis more.
Dr. Karin Koopmans notes that "many sailors are aware of the dangers, but protection is still neglected." Regular wearing of a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, UV-protective clothing, and sunscreen provides good skin protection.
So how big is the risk, really? "There's a difference between the sun's peak load on the skin and the constant load," explains Dr. Koopmans. “Most travelers get sunburned during peak exposure to ultraviolet radiation. The skin reacts to this with inflammation: redness, swelling, pain, and sometimes even blisters. These are all short term effects. They are annoying, but when the inflammation goes away, most people think the problem is gone. But this is not so: if the skin cells do not have time to recover, the likelihood of DNA damage increases. In the long term, this can lead to skin cancer.”
While flash sunburn most commonly affects sailors sailing in seasonal waters, cruisers near the equator are exposed to year-round sun exposure. “Chronic sun exposure significantly increases the risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancer,” says Koopmans.
Another doctor in our material today is Dr. Edith Olash Harken, a dermatologist. She highlights that one of the increased risk factors for sailors is that they tend to start sailing early. Therefore, they were likely exposed to the sun from an early age: "We know that five or more sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 can increase the risk of developing melanoma by almost 80%."
Does your existing tan protect you?
“For white/fair skinned people who are proficient in tanning, “base tan” is a little “protective”, if you can call it that. They can spend a little more time in the sun without getting sunburned, but such a tan will not protect them from skin cancer and premature skin aging,” explains Dr. Olash Harken.
“Olive-skinned people who tan very quickly have a lower risk of skin cancer, but chronic sun exposure will age their skin regardless of the degree of tanning. What's more, tanning can be deceiving and allow you to spend more time in the sun, which is ultimately very harmful. Those with very white skin and who cannot tan, but only burn and freckle, should never attempt to develop any kind of “base tan.”
Protection starts with discipline: choose a method of prevention and stick to it. Hats, sunglasses, and protective clothing are handy, but you need to get into the habit of wearing them.
If your boat has a bimini, use it on very sunny days and especially at noon. If you use sunscreen, apply it at least half an hour before you go out and reapply every two hours (unless you're using a one-off formula), or sooner if you're swimming or sweating a lot.
Sunscreen and marine life
Sunscreens are made with chemical (organic) or mineral (inorganic) bases. Sunscreens with a chemical base are absorbed by the skin. When the skin is exposed to UV radiation, the foundation starts a chemical process that reduces the damaging effects of UV radiation. But this process takes time, so it is recommended to apply the cream at least 30 minutes before sun exposure.
The mineral base is like a shield on the skin. This cream reflects harmful rays. This is why mineral-based sunscreens are often very visible: they look like a white layer. Mineral sunscreens work immediately upon application to the skin.
Dr. Olash Harken also adds: “Other factors also influence your choice. It depends on your skin type and where you live. Sunscreens are regulated as OTC drugs in the US. In the US, zinc oxide provides the broadest protection, lowest environmental impact, and is not absorbed into the blood."
The problem with zinc oxide is that it can be chalky and white, so it can be difficult to use, especially on dark skin. Tinted versions can help, but they can't be made as transparent as chemical filters."
There is growing awareness of the effects of sunscreens on marine life. These products can lead to coral bleaching and hormonal imbalances in marine animals.
“Two ingredients banned in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands due to potential harm to corals are oxybenzone and octinoxate (also known as benzophenone-3 and octylmethoxycinnamate or OMC),” adds Dr. Olash Harken. “But in Europe, where sunscreens are regulated like cosmetics, regulators are looking at titanium dioxide, octocrylene and homosalate.”
Just a shirt?
Sun protection clothing is becoming more and more widespread. There is a large selection of stylish products for both adults and children with a high degree of UV protection.
Clothing made from natural materials such as cotton, silk or wool actually protects the skin from UV radiation. But clothing made from synthetic materials (elastane, polyamide, polyester) is better. In special clothing with UV protection, additional chemical or mineral “filters” are added to the fabric. The principle of action is the same as in sunscreens. For example, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Dark colors protect better than light colors, although white may be more attractive to wear on a hot day.
The presence of these additives in the fabric can lead to an allergic reaction or skin irritation. Read the label carefully before buying if you have sensitive skin. Over time, the effect of additives decreases due to immersion in water, whether swimming or washing.
Neck gaiters and buffs/scarves with UV protection are becoming increasingly popular among professional sailors and tropical residents to protect areas such as the ears and neck.
If you spend a lot of time in the sun, consider getting checked out by a dermatologist. “[Sailors] should go for two reasons: to get a basic professional skin exam and to assess risk based on medical history. The dermatologist will then tell them how often they should visit the doctor,” advises Dr. Harken. “But for those who burn and cannot tan, who have many moles and freckles, have a family history of skin cancer, or if there is a suspicious lesion, go today!”
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