Make your brain an SPF

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- With summer around the corner, it is that time of year when families plan vacations, little league starts up and people spend more time outdoors. That makes this the perfect time to discuss skin protection.

Why should we protect ourselves? You look pretty good with a golden brown tan, don't you? The truth is that skin damage occurs with ANY tan. Tanning is our body's response to the harmful rays of the sun. When it comes to skin damage, I am not just talking about cancer or sunburn; aging is a very common form of skin damage. What you and I call "aging" is more than just years on the clock...it is years in the sun as well.

Skin damage is caused by invisible rays shining down on us from the sun. These rays are called ultraviolet rays, and they are invisible to the naked eye. There are two types of ultraviolet rays, ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B. UVA causes skin aging (A for aging). UVB causes skin cancers and sunburns (B for burning). All sunscreens block UVB, but most do a very bad job at protecting you from UVA. The skin protecting factor found on all sunscreen labels is only defined for UVB. So ... if your sunscreen says nothing about blocking UVA, then despite an SPF of epic proportions, your skin is still exposed to the aging effects of the sun.

I would like to diverge for a second on SPF. Remember that SPF is a factor, and this factor is based on how fast you burn. If it takes you an hour to burn in the sun without any sunscreen at all, then wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 10 will give you 10 hours before getting sunburned. An SPF of 30 will give you 30 hours of protection, and so on. Keep in mind that these "factors" are computed from data obtained in lab conditions. SPF does not account for sweating, sand, punching your brother because he ate your sandwich, or most importantly, swimming.

Sunscreen is not the only thing that has an SPF. Technically speaking, anything that blocks UVB has an SPF, even if it hasn't been tested in a lab (a brick wall, for example). One brand-new dark 100 percent cotton T-shirt carries an SPF 4. Wear it a few times or get it wet, and this number decreases. There are special sun protective shirts available in stores, but these are rather expensive. It makes me laugh when I see people at the beach who wear T-shirts because "it means I do not have to wear sunscreen." Now if they wore two T-shirts, these people would have a case. With two T-shirts, the fibers overlap, giving you an SPF 50.

So now to answer the $64,000 question: "What brand of sunscreen should I use?" Quick answer is anything greater than or equal to SPF 30. Also, if you can find sunscreen that contains Parsol (Avobenzone), that would be great. Parsol is the best available UVA blocker out there. "But what about my tan?" you ask. Remember that tanning equals skin damage and skin damage can lead to skin cancer, sunburns and aging. Call me Monty Hall, but only you can decide how good a deal this is.

Finally, let's talk about tanning salons, aka "aging" salons. They use UVA rays to give you that beautiful tan. Remember "A" is for aging. So if you are looking for that reptile look in 15 years, then tanning salons are perfect. Otherwise, I recommend staying away, even if it's only for that "base tan" that everyone craves at the beginning of the summer. (On a side note, "base tan" is a flawed idea too.)

As I said before, even the slightest tan is evidence of skin damage. But there is one final point that I want to make; that is, don't stop your outdoor activities. Take your kids to the park. Relax on the beach. Run your marathons. Have fun outside in the beautiful weather. Basically, I want you to continue to enjoy those activities that you look forward to every year. I only ask that you please protect yourself when doing them.