April 16, 2007, Palm Beach Post, 7 minutes in the sun can lead to lifetime of problems, By Meghan Meyer.
In the shady cusp of the danger zone, by the sea grapes that separate Atlantic Avenue from the beach, a retiree from Indiana prepares for a day in the sun.
Peter Agostino is not wearing sunblock, and he does not intend to put any on.
"I put some on the first couple of days," he says. "I don't need it."
The newspaper's weather page ranks today's sun danger as a 7 on a scale of 1 to 12.
In as little as seven to 10 minutes, ultraviolet rays that travel from the sun to the skin can cause changes at the cellular level that result in, among other problems, sunburn. The sunburn will go away, but the unseen damage to cells could last a lifetime.
Agostino says he has a "base tan."
That's not something to be proud of, said Miami skin cancer surgeon Dr. Alysa Herman, a spokeswoman for The Skin Cancer Foundation. Like sunburn, a tan is not healthy. It's a defense mechanism.
"It's a sign of exposure to the sun," she said. "Over time, cumulative exposure leads to cancer."
Agostino and his wife, Teresa, crane their necks, searching for their friends' umbrella. Several couples from Indiana, New Jersey and Canada came together for two weeks at the beach, as they do every year.
They spot the group of about 10 people sitting in a campfire-like circle, the umbrella at their feet. Three kinds of ultraviolet rays leave the sun and, if they're not deflected by the atmosphere or, say, a beach umbrella, they hit the skin. The kind that causes sunburn, UV-B, has long been known to cause skin cancer, though scientists recently found that UV-A rays contribute to cancer, too. Sunscreen blocks these rays, to a point.
In the next encampment over, Natashya Sanoja has a bright pink burn on her back. She got it the day before.
"Yesterday, I didn't use quite as strong an SPF (sun protection factor)," the Boca Raton college student says. "It was a cloudy day." So today, she took her brother's sunblock and hit the beach again.
Although the damage can be done in less than 10 minutes, a burn usually doesn't become visible until later in the day. That's when redness and swelling start to develop. Under a microscope, scientists see a dilation of the blood vessels, Herman said.
Sanoja noticed hers when she got home.
Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue Chief Don May sees it happen every day.
"It's like dehydration: Once you realize you're sunburned, it's too late," he said. "Once it's done, you're cooked."
His lifeguards are hyper-conscious of the danger. Every tower has sunscreen in gallon bottles so the guards don't have to worry about forgetting to bring their own to work. Most visit a dermatologist every six months. Lifeguarding has come a long way since May's early career on the New Jersey shore, when his chief worry was getting a respectable tan.
"In those days, you'd put baby oil and iodine on," he said. "There was no such thing as sunscreen. It was suntan lotion. Nobody realized they were throwing themselves in the mix for skin cancer."
Baby oil has not lost its allure for some.
Next to Sanoja's blanket, Julianne Gershmann of Boca Raton allows that she used it last spring break.
"I knew it was dumb," the Florida Atlantic University student says. "My mom always tells me to wear sunscreen."
She got a nasty burn that she noticed later, when she got home. The burn peaked that night when she took a painful shower and tried, unsuccessfully, to sleep.
Remembering the experience, Gershmann stands up to reapply lotion while her friends lie drowsily on their towels and beach chairs nearby. She gets sheepish when asked about the SPF.
"It's SPF 4," she says, and her friends laugh.
A sunburn alters the nuclei and the cytoplasm in normal skin cells. The cell becomes something entirely different, something scientists call a "sunburn cell."
By peeling, the skin tries to heal itself, to shed the damaged skin cells that have morphed into sunburn cells, said Herman, who performs 1,200 skin cancer surgeries each year. The damage is so intense, she said, that the cells cannot repair themselves. Usually, the sunburn cells die. Research has shown that when the damaged cells don't die, years later they can develop into tumors.
And they are showing up in younger and younger sunbathers.
"Despite public education, if you drive by the beach today, it'll be packed," Herman said. "People come into my office with a burn. I tell them, 'I can't believe you're coming into my office with a burn! Can't you at least wait until the burn fades?''"
The Skin Cancer Foundation: Click links for tips on staying safe in the sun and keeping your skin healthy.
NASA's Advanced Supercomputing Division: Information about ultraviolet light and its effect on the skin
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