Protecting Yourself from Overexposure to Sunlight

-by Jay Murdock, SDKC Safety Editor  – March 2015 


We are blessed in Southern California with great weather, and mostly bright, sunny days. These conditions allow us to paddle almost any day of the year, but there is a hidden hazard imbedded in this, waiting to take advantage of our not taking precautions to protect ourselves from the harmful damage to our skin from that sunlight. Wearing a hat, even one with a broad brim, does not adequately protect our face on water like it can on land. As illustrated in the photo, sunlight is reflected off the water, and our exposure to sunlight is therefore heightened.

While most of us put on sunscreen to our face, neck, and arms, the lips are often left out of that protection. We may just put on lip balm for wind protection, but that is not enough. Our lips are not regular skin, but are part of our inner body, and do not have the protective properties of skin. That is why they get chapped so easily. And that also makes them more vulnerable to sun damage. That sunlight can change the functions of human cells, causing cancer.

For years I did just what was stated above. Except I often did not even put on sunscreen to my face and arms. Like many people, I thought cancer would never be my health issue, but I was wrong. Several months ago I noticed a small area on my lower lip that that would not heal, even with medicated lip balm. It then grew into a small bump, which I “self-diagnosed” as a fever blister. I purchased some over the counter medication for that, and spent 3 months thinking I was effectively treating something I did not have. By the time I recently went to the doctor about it, the cancer had progressed beyond the surface layer of the skin. But I’m fortunate, in that it is still a somewhat small area, and they can treat it with radiation…I hope. If that does not work, part of my lip will need to be removed. Had I taken the minute before each paddle to apply sun protection, I would not now have to go through the many hours of medical visits and treatment. Everyone can do the math. Take 10 to 15 hours of medical treatment, and divide those by minutes. That will give you how many paddles you can self-protect your skin and lips on. The next time you’re preparing to paddle, and don’t think you have the time to apply sun screen, think about this “trade off”.

How to Protect Yourself

The best thing to use is a sunscreen with zinc, and an SPF of 38 or more.  There are products that go on clear, and are great for every thing but the lips. For the lips, it should have “transparent” zinc oxide. It can be used on any skin area, and rubbed in, it becomes clear.  On the lips, apply it liberally, which will give you white lips. That will absolutely block the sun, while giving you that cool “surfer” look (hey, we can also look “cool”). Make sure the product is water and sweat resistant for 80 minutes, and re-apply it after that time. This means you take it in your boat on longer paddles, and place it where you can get to it easily. If on open water, raft up with someone to keep you stable while you do this. Apply the sun screen to every exposed skin area, and be sure to get all parts of your ears.

There are good clothing items on the market that block sunlight. It is best to wear long sleeve tops to protect your arms. Clothes that have a UPF rating of 15 are good, but the higher that number the better the protection is. Wear fingerless gloves to protect the back of your hands. Hats that have neck protection are also best to wear. Wear sunglasses that block the UV rays, and wrap around, keeping those rays from coming in from the sides. There are other factors in choosing good sunglasses, and this Mayo Clinic website is very helpful:

As that timeless saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Protect yourself, and stay “safe” in this health issue. Good health is everything. It trumps almost every other thing in life.

PostScript added on 7/25/2021:

In this article I spoke about applying sun block to “all areas of your ears”. I thought I was doing this, but neglected that small area at the bottom of my left ear, that little “cup” that you can put the end or your finger in. I recently went to the dermatologist to see why I had bleeding in that area, and found out it was cancer. I had assumed the sunlight could not get in that area, but was wrong. I chose surgery this time over radiation, and glad I did so. Radiation “weakens” the tissue, making it harder to treat that area in the future if needed. With surgery, they typically know all skin cancer has been removed. With radiation, they don’t know for sure, and the cancer can reappear months or years later.

I’ve also learned a lot about what to look for in a pre-cancer condition, and how to treat that. If you have a crusty spot that does not respond to skin moisturizer, that may be pre-cancer. Do not hesitate to see a dermatologist, who can treat that, and stop it from becoming cancer.  A spot that bleeds now and then may very well be cancer.  A mole that grows or changes color is also a warning sign. Years ago, I knew a Navy Admiral at my church that had a “spot” on his upper forehead. For months, a friend of mine who is a doctor, saw that spot when talking to him at church, and told him to have it checked. The Admiral procrastinated about going to his doctor…until it was too late, and he died from cancer. Middle-aged and in the prime of his life, and this warrior lost that battle.

-Contributed by Jay Murdock