Innovation Meets Fashion in China as Locals Stay Protected on the Beach
When I was a kid, the world was a much less complicated place. Coca Cola used to advertise that “Coke adds life” and Camel cigarettes made you cool. Kids played outside, rode their bikes without helmets and if it was really hot, we wore a hat. Oh how things have changed.
No longer can Coca Cola safely make its bold claims about the efficacy of its concoctions, and the concept of “Camel man” has been progressively demoted to the point where the primary association of the term nowadays is with arms smugglers in the Hindu Kush. Parents are seen as irresponsible for allowing their kids to touch a bike without a helmet, and in some countries, can even be fined for it.
One of the most devastating developments however, worse than the demise of the Camel man or the concept of playing outside with real friends, is the demolition of the safety of sunshine. Realising the opportunities offered by the hole in the Ozone layer and the gullibility of modern man, the ‘sun protection industry’ has become a USD6 billion industry. We are bombarded by advertisements declaring the risk of cancer from exposure to the sun, and no self respecting cosmetic product would dare sit on the shelf without sporting the SPF label somewhere on its packaging.
The threat of skin cancer has become one of the ultimate kill joys. To me it sounds just a little suspect. The facts on the link between skin cancer and Ultra Violet radiation are actually quite interesting. Despite the strident claims from the sun protection industry, research has so far failed to conclusively link UV radiation (sunlight) with increase in melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer. In fact, the statistical difference between incidence of melanoma in those who regularly spent time in the sun versus those who spent most of their lives indoors is almost insignificant, and studies have actually shown that people with heavy occupational exposure to the sun have a lower incidence of melanoma than those who do not. Dr Bernard Ackerman – a pioneer in dermatology pathology who was recognized as a master dermatologist by the American Academy of Dermatology (the Academy’s highest honor) – insists there is no evidence connecting UV and melanoma in his monograph, The Sun and the Epidemic of Melanoma: Myth on Myth.
I still believe sunshine is good for you. There are many reasons for this belief, probably the main one being that everything seems better when the sun shines. Cloudy days get you down, I know, I lived in Ireland for 10 years. Science backs the claim that sunshine makes you feel good, and your body needs exposure to the sun in order to make vitamin D, which you can’t really get any other way, except through supplements. Tanning is a natural reaction to sunlight, and provides some protection from becoming sunburnt. Some recent research has indicated that the only people who really do show a link between increased chances of developing cancer and sunshine are those who have really fair skins that do not tan and therefore do not have the built in solar defenses and those who get sunburnt regularly, as opposed to merely getting tanned.
While the link between exposure to UV radiation and risk of melanoma is still very much disputed, we can all attest to the fact that being exposed to the sun for extended periods does make your skin age faster, and therefore look older. We’ve all seen those lovely leathery ladies sunbathing for hours by the pool.
Westerners tend to associate a tanned skin with health, success and fitness. They have come a long way from the Victorian age when both men and women plastered themselves with lead based make-up to whiten up their appearance. Nowadays westerners spend millions to keep themselves bronzed, some even pay to be turned orange. The market for sunless tanning has exploded alongside the general acceptance of the unproven claims about the link between skin cancer and sunshine.
In the East, especially in China, tanning is not as well regarded. Women prefer to preserve a lighter complexion, and while in the West we have bronzing lotions and spray on tan, the shelves of pharmacies in the East are filled with whitening creams and sunblock.
There have been some interesting developments in the realms of sun protection over the years, with many innovative products coming into the market to protect you from the “harmful rays of the sun”.
Let’s look at some sun protection in order of increasing effectiveness.
- Your own skin
Human skin seems to have been designed to cope with rigors of living on Earth. It is waterproof, breathable, washable, self-repairing and a very effective barrier against outside threats like germs and dirt. Unless you have a specific genetic mutation, your skin is also able to rapidly adjust to levels of incoming radiation. Most people can catch a tan, and it usually only takes a couple of hours for your skin to darken significantly. While it is quite easy for untanned skin to become sunburnt, your skin becomes progressively more immune to being burnt by the sun as it gets more and more tanned.
It is good sense therefore, to be careful in the sun while your skin is still light, and give it time to build its defenses and to avoid potentially painful burns.
A person with a ‘base tan’ is about 4 times more resistant to sunburn than a person of similar skin type who has no tan. Maintaining a light tan is a very good basic form of sun protection.
Different types and colors of skin also have different capacities to tan and proclivity to being burnt. Dark African skin, for example, does get darker in the sun, but will not easily be burnt, especially when compared to light skinned Northern Europeans.
- Spray on tan
Due to the successful demonization of UV radiation, the demand for classic sunbeds has been diminishing as fears of cancer have escalated. As a “safer” alternative to the venerable sunbed, “sunless tanning” has become a very lucrative business, despite the common experience of many who tried off-the-shelf tanning lotions turning orange, instead of a more natural bronze.
Professionally applied spray on tanning tends to deliver much better results, with colors custom matched to your skin and even automated application booths that ensure an even application. Spray on tan salons have become very common, but being spray painted still sounds slightly wacky to me. Despite the wackiness, there are some benefits to this. A choice of colors, no premature aging effects, improved sun protection and speed of application to name but a few. Some people have taken the term “art of spray tanning” to a whole new level.
- Creams and lotions
- Sunscreens cut down vitamin D production in the skin by as much as 99%. Vitamin D is essential to our wellbeing. In Australia, the government has started recommendingthat people spend around 15 minutes (depending on where you live in Australia) in the sun every few days without sunblock applied, to counteract a national Vitamin D deficiency (also here).
- Sunblock interferes with the skin’s ability to produce melanin, a very strong anti-oxidant, and can increase the presence of harmful free radicals in the skin. Some studies actually show an increase in the risk of malignant melanoma among users of sunscreen.
- Some components of sunscreen lotions produce potentially harmful chemicals if illuminated (exposed to light, like sunshine) while in contact with living cells (skin). It sounds almost like it was designed to be bad for you.
- Creams and lotions
“Sun Tan Lotion”, “sunblock”, “sunscreen” – we have all been warned of the dangers of not using it. Many of the most popular and most effective brands come from Australia, where the hole in the Ozone layer created a tsunami of anti-sun innovation.
Creams and lotions provide effective protection from the sun and significantly reduce the chances of being sunburnt, as long as it is applied regularly. A rating system, known as “Sun Protection Factor” (SPF), has been developed to help describe the amount of protection offered. A cream with SPF 5 is supposed to protect you so that it takes 5 times more radiation before you start burning. It’s not so easy though, to extrapolate that to mean that you can stay in the sun 5 times longer, as there are other factors that affect the efficacy of the protection, like sweating, swimming, regular application, etc.
This whole SPF rating has become slightly suspect. Ten years ago we were told to use a factor 15 sunscreen when starting a tan, and graduate to a factor 5 once we had bronzed up a little. Today, we start at factor 50+. What is happening to sunshine, or are people becoming more whimpy by the day?
In some countries the SPF ratings have been limited to 30+ or 50+, to prevent unrealistic and misleading claims.
There are some contentious aspects of sunscreen that are worth noting.
This is probably the best long term solution to prevent overexposure to the sun. There are no side effects, except that some of these outfits look a little goofy.
Many products exist which are specifically designed to provide sun protection, and look cool at the same time. Again, we have the Australians to thank for that. After all, you don’t want to become the laughing stock of Bondi, but at the same time, who wants cancer, right?
This class of clothing features predominantly long sleeves, hats with wide brims and neck covering, gloves, even surfing helmets with integrated visors.
One thing to keep in mind is that thinly woven or almost see-through materials don’t provide much protection. Choose materials designed to protect you from the sun, such as tightly woven cotton, lycra or other micromesh type materials. Most products designed for solar protection will mention this on the label.
- The Anti-sunlight-head-protection-with-suit-optional A.K.A. The Facekini.
Our most effective and final item has taken sun protection to the extreme. Not only eliminating any chance of a suntan but also any risk of potential identification, and it’s taking Chinese beaches by storm.
The innovator or this ultimate protection seems to have taken some design cues from the desert Arabs, and would probably find a good market in the more fundamentalist Muslim states.
Market forces have driven some more development of this ingenious product, which is now available in a range of colors and can be pre shrunk for extra comfort. Apparently, one size fits all.
Clever, isn’t it?
I can’t help wondering if their next model will also include protection from the very carcinogenic polluted air. George Lucas would be honored to help them with some design cues.