Sunshine is described as "a combination of bright light and radiant heat”...have you ever met someone who doesn’t like it?
Sunlight has a profound effect on us. When we wake up on a sunny day sunlight hits our optical nerve, which then sends it to the gland in our brain that controls melatonin. Melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep, goes down in level while the level of serotonin, the ”good mood” neurotransmitter, goes up. The more sunlight we get, the more serotonin we produce. In addition to this, when the sun’s rays hit our skin, we produce vitamin D, which brings wonderful benefits and also regulates our levels of serotonin. That’s why we feel happy in the sunshine, nothing bad can happen on a beautiful sunny day.
The sunlight we get on Earth is fundamentally a mixture of electromagnetic waves ranging from infrared (IR) to ultraviolet rays (UV).
We get three types of UV on Earth:
UVC, almost all absorbed by our atmosphere
UVB (short-wave), greatly absorbed by our atmosphere but those that do reach us (levels depend on altitude, latitude, time of day, time of year) they can make a lot of damage. They’re responsible for both vitamin synthesis on our skin (good) and cancer inducing DNA damage.
UVA (long-wave), we get a fair amount of these. They penetrate our skin deeper, are responsible for skin aging, pass through clouds and glass and it has now been confirmed they can play a contributing part in the development of different types of skin cancer. They are also the rays you get at a tanning salon, making you wonder why they have not been banned yet (they are in Australia).
Basically, sunlight can make us happy and healthy while also having the potential to cause cancer. So what do we do?
As divers and ocean loving people we know that often it’s not possible to avoid the sun during the hottest and most dangerous hours (mostly between 10am and 4pm). We also know that applying sun lotion every hour or so it's not really practical when you’re constantly wet, plus the fact that sun lotions don’t really stay on our skin when we’re in & out of a wetsuit. Let’s face it, we’re often unprepared and more than ready to accept the consequences of mild sunburn.
I love the sunshine, on a sunny day I feel invincible. I am also very fastidious about not getting sunburned and I have a very good reason for that, having a twin brother who was recently diagnosed with melanoma. I now know a lot about the risk of not taking good measures against the harmful effect of sunshine and have extensively researched into sun protection.
Without wanting to lecture anyone, this is what I’ve learned that could be useful to divers:
Clothes that are made with sun protective fabrics are way more effective than any sun lotion with high SFP. Fabrics that are made with synthetic fibres like elastane (Lycra) and nylon or polyester, highly woven and in dark or bright colours are the best. Consider wearing a long sleeved, high necked UV rated rash guard but beware of clothing companies that guarantee any Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) higher than 50. Only heavy denim can give you that. Also, make sure it fits okay and it’s not stretched out. The weave of the fabric has to remain dense and tight to guarantee protection from UV rays.
Guys, if you’re follicly challenged, watch out especially for your head and neck. Most men would get a melanoma originating from their upper body (it’s the legs for women). Wear a wide brimmed hat or a neck protector. Protect your eyes with good quality eyewear, they can also get sun burned.
In your day bag always carry a light towel, a hat, UVB & UVA (broad spectrum) SPF 50+ sun lotion and possibly a lightweight hoodie to protect your upper body. If you’re wearing cotton, make sure your garment is washed. Washing causes shrinkage which increases the UPF. Remember, it’s better to feel a bit hot than to get sunburned, so do cover up!
Always buy a lotion that offers “broad spectrum” or states UVB and UVA protection - UVB alone is not enough. Always go for a high factor, especially if you know you tend to burn easily. That applies to any skin colour and yes, black people get sun burned too.
Broadly speaking, the active ingredients in sun lotions are:
- Organic chemical filters, “absorbers” – they absorb UV rays and partially penetrate the skin. The most common ones are Oxybenzone and Retinyl Palmitate but there are many more with long (pretty scary) names. Oxybenzone is by far the most controversial ingredient and given the choice, better to keep away from it.
- Inorganic (mineral) physical filters, “blockers” – they sit on the surface of the skin to deflect rays. The most commons one are Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide.
Some more advanced formulas use micronised minerals to avoid the unwanted ghostly look you get with physical blockers and despite many researches it’s not entirely clear whether they are safe to use or not.
All three formulas carry the obvious advantages but all three have been proven to have several issues, from penetrating the skin and producing dangerous free radicals to causing skin irritation and even allergies. Then there’s the impact on the ocean, which is not easy to establish. In my research I came across a number of articles about studies being done on the impact that sunscreen has on corals and my conclusion is that there is definitely no conclusive, fully evidence-based finding.As a rule of thumb, it looks like minerals based lotions are less damaging to the reef, so they should be safer to use.
To make things more difficult, many cosmetic manufacturers do not list their ingredients on the packaging, so if you’re really concerned you’ve got to jump on the internet, do your research and decide for yourself.
There are indeed safer, reef friendly sun lotions. They are usually manufactured by companies that use organic ingredients and are in general more focused on healthier formulas too. No need to say they carry a higher price tag and therefore you might feel you might use less of them and save them for your next holiday. That would be a mistake because you have to apply sun lotions generously and repeatedly for them to do their job. Then cancer researchers say that high factor, less harmful sun lotions might give you a false sense of security and therefore you might overstay your welcome in the sunshine…the list of potential dangers seems to never end.
I personally use both types of sun protection. Lighter, SPF50+, chemical based but still oxybenzone free, on my face, then mineral, SPF30 on my body. As a diver I pay special attention to my hands and feet, body parts that are often neglected. I always wear sunglasses (I’m also Italian, so I must!). I don’t sunbathe extensively anymore but I do spend at least ten minutes in the sunshine without anything on my skin, just to boost my vitamin D production. I do cover up, a lot.
At Divesangha we redesigned the classic rash guard to make it less “rash guard” and more “sun guard”. It has thumb cuffs that cover your hands, a zip at the front so you wear it as a long sleeved top and cool down a bit if it’s too hot. It’s also got a tight hood that protects head and neck. You can wear it underwater too. The fabric we used is woven in Italy by the leading swimwear manufacturer Carvico and it’s tested to be UPF 50+. The nylon used in this fabric is called ECONYL® and it’s 100% recycled from fish nets and other nylon based waste materials. This rash guard ticks a lot of boxes for ocean lovers!
We also recommend our DS Poncho. Strictly speaking microfibre is not tested for UPF but it’s a densely woven fabric and most likely offers good protection – certainly better than a cotton T-shirt.
I will not stop to enjoy the sunshine, nothing makes me happier. However, there is a dark side to the sun too…don’t ignore it, take it seriously.
Happy diving (preferably in the sunshine),