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Ever wonder about that sought-after sun-kissed glow? It's nature's way of trying to protect your skin from the evils of ultraviolet rays. But there are much more effective sun shields than your own skin. You can now find a wide array of protective clothing. UV sensors can warn you when you've had enough exposure. There are even new nonprescription pills that claim to protect you from sunburn and its damaging effects.
Sunscreens are usually your first line of defense. Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) has come up with a new formulation that promises to be a better barrier against ultraviolet A rays, which cause premature aging and can contribute to skin cancer. (The sun protection factor, or SPF, measures only protection against UVB light, which causes sunburns and cancer. It is a measure of how long protection lasts.)
Used in its Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreens, J&J's breakthrough stabilizes a UVA blocking agent, avobenzone (or Parsol 1789), which normally breaks down after an hour or two in the sun. Neutrogena calls the resulting blocker Helioplex; Aveeno refers to it as Active Photobarrier Complex. The new sunscreens come in SPFs of 30 to 55, and they're good for up to four or five hours. J&J's formulation is an attempt to find a UVA shield as effective as Mexoryl and Tinosorb, which are in European sunscreens but aren't yet approved for sale in the U.S. Widely available over the Web, Mexoryl and Tinosorb are in such brands as Anthelios, Ombrelle, Vichy, Avene, and Bioderma Photoderm. Other UVA blockers you can buy in the U.S. are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Even the best sunscreens wear off, so reapply them every couple of hours, especially if you've been sweating or swimming. And know when you've had enough. A good way to keep track of your cumulative exposure is to get one of the new products that react to UV light. SunSignals self-adhesive patches, $5 for a pack of 18, gradually change color to a bright orange when exposed to UV rays, warning you to reapply your sunscreen or go inside.
A better bet is an electronic UV monitor, which costs about $25 or $30. La Crosse Technology makes one that looks like a sports watch, or there are styles you can wear around your neck from Chaney Instrument and Oregon Scientific. Program them with your skin type, from fair to dark, and the SPF of your sunscreen. They calculate the strength of the days's UV rays and use that to count down the time you can stay outside safely. Oregon Scientific's model is splash-proof and includes a digital thermometer. It's $20 at Target (TGT).
If even a little sun is too much, cover up. A white T-shirt has an SPF rating of only 5, and less if it's wet. Darker colors and heavier fabrics are better, though they're not the first thing you reach for on a sunny day. Companies such as Coolibar, Sun Precautions, and NoZone make colorful, lightweight hats and clothing with SPFs as high as 50. Do-it-yourselfers can approximate the effect with SunGuard, a laundry additive from the makers of Rit Dye. A $2 box will give that ordinary T-shirt an SPF of 30, and the protection lasts about 20 washings.
Dietary supplements such as SunPill from Pure Pharmaceuticals and Heliocare from IVAX claim to protect you from the sun for about a dollar a day, but be warned: Dermatologists say they won't hurt, but they're no substitute for a good sunscreen and a hat.
By Larry Armstrong