Roughly 4.6 billion years ago, a gigantic cloud of gas collapsed in on itself, crumpling under the weight of its own gravity, and became what we call “the sun.”
No sooner did our ancestors step out of the primordial soup and develop thumbs and tools than they lifted their gazes skyward and became obsessed with the incandescent ball of plasma they saw there. They worshiped the sun as a god and built temples for it. They danced for it and wrote poems about it. They devoted unfathomable amounts of time, money and effort into studying it, and even built probes that could fly out into space and get a closer look.
And yet, the sun is tricky. The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health advises: “People of all ages and skin tones should limit the amount of time they spend in the sun, especially between mid-morning and late afternoon.”
If we don’t get enough sun, we’ll sink into the deepest depths of despair, but if we get too much of it, our skin will dry and crinkle like crepe paper. We need sunlight for vitamin D, and to help regulate our sleep cycles, but it inspires people to go stand up paddle boarding, and then to tell you again and again about how you really have to try stand up paddle boarding.
Is there such a thing as a safe tan? “No,” said Dr. Maressa C. Criscito, an assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Health. The prolonged effects of sun exposure, Dr. Criscito said, include sunspots, skin discoloration, early signs of aging and skin cancer.
Is stand up paddle boarding worth that? “No,” said I.
Previously, I had a pleasant sense of spiritual and moral superiority about my own sunscreen use — a healthy portion of SPF 50 rubbed over my face every morning. But my self-satisfaction was misguided.
“The biggest mistake people make is this false sense of security that a high SPF number is enough,” said Dr. Shereene Idriss, a dermatologist in New York City. “They’ll only use it at 8 a.m. before leaving the house,” she said, describing my exact practice. “But the reality is, it doesn’t last all day.”
To be truly effective, sunscreen must be reapplied frequently (the general recommendation is every two hours) across every exposed bit of skin, including your hands and the tips of your ears.
(Dr. Idriss bristled at the mention of the anti-sunscreen posts that occasionally pop up on social media, shared by self-proclaimed health experts who believe seed oils to be at the root of all modern ailments. “In the 1700s, the average life expectancy was 30 to 40. The median age at which melanoma is diagnosed is 65,” she said. If people seemed to get less skin cancer before, she argued, it was because they weren’t living long enough to develop it.)
Sunscreen is just one piece of the puzzle, according to Dr. Criscito, who advises adding garments with ultraviolet protection factor. “Coupling your sunscreen with a hat, or UPF clothing, or sitting under an umbrella, or going indoors for lunch during the high, peak UV index — those are all things that you could do in addition to your sunscreen application,” she said.
Dr. Idriss said that she supplements her own sun protection practices with UPF rash guards and UV visors that completely shade her face and neck. “I’m making it chic,” she said. “I’m going with it.”
And don’t think just staying inside is the solution, either. Dr. Criscito pointed to a famous photo published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2012 that showed a 69-year-old trucker who experienced significantly more skin damage on the left side of his face than on the right because of the UVA rays it had been exposed to through the driver’s-side window during his 28 years on the road. “Even through windows you could get UV exposure,” she said.
I wondered if the most productive way to shield myself from the harmful effects of the sun’s rays would be to quit my job and abandon my relationships in order to devote myself to applying sunscreen full-time, under the shade of an umbrella deep in an underground bunker. I would lose my grip on reality, but my skin would look incredible.
Perhaps the sun is best enjoyed from afar. The American Cancer Society estimates that there are more than five million new cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year.
As the days stretch out and summer approaches, bright and hot, and friends begin making plans that will involve exposing our soft, fragile bodies to solar radiation while sweat pools in dark, damp crevices, consider: What if, instead of soaking up the sun, we repelled it through a rigorous combination of lotions, lawn furniture and clothing designed for deep-sea fishermen?
Below, a thorough but incomplete list of items that will help shield you from the sun’s wrath during whatever social and/or emotional situations may arise this summer. You’ll have to find your own underground bunker, though.