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Seeking Remedies for the Darker Side of Tanning

Health: As sunbathers continue to risk getting cancer, skin experts are offering new treatments--and warnings.

June 10, 1997|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At a secluded cove in Laguna Beach, Lisa Jarrell reclines in an unmanned lifeguard tower, her copper-colored skin gleaming like a new penny in the sun.

"I'm in the sun all year 'round. I'm tan every month," says Jarrell, a 29-year-old Corona del Mar resident. Although she's heard about the damage sun can do to her skin, Jarrell isn't ready to stop enjoying the rays.

"It's kind of like smoking. People tell me, 'You should be careful. You'll be sorry.' I get ridiculed a lot," she says.

Jarrell is not alone. Despite widespread warnings that sun exposure can cause skin cancer and premature aging, many Southern Californians resist giving up their tans.

The majority of sun exposure occurs by age 18, long before most of us give any serious thought to premature aging. But those in the skin-care field have noticed an increased public awareness of the sun's dangers.

"I've been doing skin care for 18 years. When I first started, my youngest customers were in their early 40s. Now they're in their 20s," says Olga Moreno, an aesthetician at Salon Salon in Monarch Beach.

More upsetting to some are what they can't see on the surface.

"If you look at skin under a microscope where there's been no sun, the collagen fibers are pink, and they interlace in a nice pattern, whereas with sun-exposed skin, they're bluish and all clumped up," Dr. Gayle Widyolar, a Laguna Hills dermatologist. "The damaged skin doesn't have any elasticity."

Although a tan itself is a sign that the skin has been damaged, the good news is that some sun damage is reversible--and even the person who loves to be in the sun can protect his or her skin.

A year without sunshine can reverse 40% to 50% of skin damage, Widyolar says. People can see their skin has healed because many of the dark sun spots, called hyper-pigmentation, lighten and disappear.

Sun lovers can also get a graphic view of the pigmentation occurring under their skin before it appears on the skin's surface with the help of a special camera. Called a Reflective UV Photography System, it is offered by Allergan Skin Care in Irvine and is in use at some dermatologists' offices in the county. The camera has a UV filter that penetrates the outer layers of skin and reveals the damage caused by sun exposure.

Although many skin-care specialists advocate avoiding the sun altogether, they know that some exposure is inevitable, especially during the summer.

They're eager to lend a hand.

Consumers now have access to increasingly effective sunscreens, intensive skin treatments and "anti-aging" products that contain everything from vitamin A to zinc.

Wearing a sunscreen every day and reapplying it often has become the first rule of skin care.

A sunscreen with Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 15 allows you to stay in the sun 15 times longer before burning than if you wore no protection.

Consumers sometimes wrongly assume that the higher the SPF number, the greater the protection per hour. But the higher numbers mean that protection is extended for longer periods of time. On the beach or by the pool, however, perspiration and swimming combine to decrease the benefit of high-SPF sunscreens.

"For most people, 15 [SPF] would protect them through their usual waking hours," says Dr. Richard Klimkowski, a Laguna Niguel dermatologist.

In addition, SPF refers only to the level of protection against UV-B rays. To be effective, a sunscreen must block both UV-B and UV-A rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin than UV-Bs.

"Both types of rays lead to skin cancer," Klimkowski says.

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Melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, is expected to cause the deaths of 4,600 men and 2,700 women in the U.S. this year, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Men outnumber women because they spend more time outdoors, and because "it's difficult to get men to use sunscreens, whereas women are used to applying products," Klimkowski says. It's becoming more common for sunscreens to be included in makeup, especially foundation and lotions.

UV rays not only can trigger skin cancer but are also responsible for most signs of aging. They break down the skin's collagen fibers, causing wrinkles and loss of elasticity.

The skin develops a leathery, crepey look that, more than the threat of skin cancer, often sends people running to a dermatologist or skin specialist in search of a cure.

"The body is always trying to compensate. If someone is diligent about blocking the sun, the body's own repair mechanisms can help out," Klimkowski says.

A variety of new antioxidants that aid in skin repair are now available to those trying to reverse the effects of photo aging. Retin A, a topical vitamin A, has been widely touted because it stimulates the formation of collagen, helping reduce fine lines.

Another promising antioxidant is a topical vitamin C derivative, which "seems to prevent damage from the sun and help with fine wrinkling," Widyolar says.

Glycolic, or fruit, acids have been shown to restore skin to a more pristine state; they accelerate cell replacement, removing the thickened top layer of dead skin and pigment granules to even skin tone and reduce fine lines.

As a last resort for serious sun "trauma," there are more intensive treatments such as laser surgery, chemical peels and plastic surgery.

Aesthetician Moreno offers a variety of treatments designed to counter premature aging, from topical alpha hydroxy treatment to caviar facials. Some sun-conscious people are warding off sun damage by wearing more protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats while outdoors.

But for those people, especially teens, who continue to sunbathe without protection, Paul Scott Premo, director of education at Allergan, has a suggestion: "Stop now, while your skin still has a chance."

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