ASK THE EXPERT: I’m going to the Caribbean this winter. Are there any special precautions I need to take to protect myself from the sun?

By Neil Sadick, MD, FAAD, FAACS, FACP, FACPh

Dr. Sadick is the medical director and owner of Sadick Dermatology, and the director of the Sadick Research Group. Dr. Sadick is also Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, President-Elect of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, and on the Board of Directors of the Women’s Dermatologic Society, American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, American Board of Hair Restoration Surgery, American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, and the International Society of Dermatologic Surgery. He sits on the Editorial Board of several medical journals, including the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, and has authored or co-authored more than 200 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, 60 chapters of medical books and 10 books on cosmetic surgery and vein treatments, lasers and cosmeceuticals.

Q: I’m going to the Caribbean this winter. Are there any special precautions I need to take to protect myself from the sun?

When the days get colder and the nights get longer many people enjoy a vacation to a warm place like the Caribbean, to catch some sun and “recharge their batteries.” Typical winter vacation regions are located close to the equator, with little distinction between the seasons and high temperatures year-round. The sunny weather in these regions is accompanied by strong ultraviolet (UV) radiation, as the sun’s rays hit the earth at a more direct angle and aren’t as well-absorbed by the atmosphere.

Furthermore, these sunny days tend to be long, sometimes with substantial amounts of UV until early evening. The ability to travel from a winter season to a sunny vacation spot in just a few hours is a great comfort in modern times, but also a heavy burden for the skin. Current studies now show that sun-filled vacations and sunburns play a key role in the development of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Intermittent, intense sun exposure, the kind you are likely to receive on a sun-drenched winter vacation (the sort that often leads to sunburn), is associated with a much higher melanoma risk than regular, everyday sun exposure. Suffering five or more sunburns over a lifetime more than doubles a person’s lifetime risk of developing melanoma. Important precautions that protect you from the sun on your vacation include shade, sun-protective clothing, and sunscreen, as well as sensibly limiting your sun exposure in general.

The sunscreen you use should have a sun protection factor of at least 30 and sufficiently block UVA as well as UVB rays. (Look for “broad spectrum” or “multi-spectrum” protection.) If you’ll be vacationing near the water, a water-resistant or very water-resistant sunscreen formula is recommended. Apply approximately one ounce of sunscreen (two tablespoons) to the whole body, and reapply every two hours or immediately after activities such as swimming, sweating, or rubbing/wiping. Loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants made from tightly woven fabrics offer the best protection from the sun’s UV rays. You may want to look for clothes that have a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) label of 30+; a shirt with a UPF of 30, for example, will let just 1/30th of the sun’s UV radiation reach your skin. High-UPF athletic gear may be particularly helpful, since such clothes are meant to keep you cool and comfortable, no matter how hot the weather gets. Finally, a hat with a brim at least 3” all the way around and UV-blocking sunglasses will also help protect the vulnerable skin on your head, face, neck, and tops of the shoulders. Sensible sun behavior means avoiding tanning and burning as well as seeking the shade between 10 AM and 4 PM (and especially between noon and 2 PM, when the sun’s rays are strongest).

Published on December 19, 2011