Sun protection for sailors: a guide to staying safe

Yachting World

Janneke Kuysters explores the sun protection options for sailors who are often highly at risk of over exposure to the sun

Sailing on a sunny day is hard to beat: but apart from the mood-enhancing qualities of the sun, we all know of its dangers. After finishing our circumnavigation and returning to the Netherlands, one of the first things that struck me was how odd it seems to see people in north-western Europe deliberately sitting in the sun, and how it’s often considered rude to keep your sunglasses on when talking to someone. It couldn’t be more different in the tropics, or in countries like Australia or New Zealand, where the sun is avoided as much as possible and hats and sunglasses are worn all day when outside.

Dr Karijn Koopmans is an MD of dermatology, and also a keen cruising sailor, exploring coastal waters in Europe. She explains the effects of sunlight on our bodies: “Starting with the skin: sunlight makes it thicker and it stimulates the production of pigments, so you get a tan. But the disadvantage is that sunlight breaks down the elastic fibres in your skin and will make it wrinkly. Even worse is that the sunlight can damage the DNA of your skin cells, which may lead to skin cancer in a later stage.

“Sunlight is good for your body, because it stimulates the production of Vitamin D which you need to build bone mass and to protect you against internal types of cancer, like bowel cancer. Sunlight also inhibits the activity of certain immune cells, especially those in your skin. This is put to good use in the treatment of psoriasis or eczema, where we see a marked improvement when the skin is exposed to UV light. The disadvantage is that you are more susceptible to cold sores and such.

“Finally, UV light can damage the lenses in your eyes and lead to cataracts.”

There are three ways to avoid sun damage: behavioural measures, mechanical and chemical. Behavioural measures simply involve staying out of the sun at its most intense periods (1200-1500). On the average sailing day this may not be possible, especially in tidal areas – we don’t always get to pick when we can be outside or not. Mechanical measures involve covering up: wearing a hat and sunglasses, lightweight and UV protective clothing, using a bimini when sailing and adding an awning or other sun shade in port. Finally, chemical measures involve applying sunscreen and lip protection.

A bimini is a practical way to get shade from the sun while cruising. Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget

Practical measures

Sailors have an increased exposure to sun damage, but how many of them really know the risks involved? To find out, we sent a questionnaire to a large group of active cruisers: half sailing in north-western Europe and the other half cruising close to the equator.

We asked which measures they used to protect themselves, and our survey indicated that most cruisers are not very keen on using sunscreen. Responses included complaints about sticky hands, grease stains and the challenge of washing it off at the end of the day. Staying out of the sun was the second most favoured tactic, but most cruisers reported they most used mechanical measures: hats, sunglasses, clothing and biminis.

Cruisers in Europe tended to be more relaxed, a hat and sunglasses being the only real measures they adopted, while cruisers in equatorial regions were more likely to opt for long sleeves and trousers, and use the bimini more.

Our questionnaire also revealed a big gap between what cruisers know they should do, and what they actually do. One summed it up: “Sunscreen stains my cockpit cushions and when I have the bimini out, I can’t see my sails. So I go and have my skin checked every two years”. A lot of cruisers said that they tan fairly quickly and feel protected by their darker skin.

Routinely wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, UV-protective clothing and adding sunscreen offers good skin protection. Photo: Janneke Kuysters

False confidence?

So how bad is the risk really? “There is a difference between a peak load of sun on your skin or continual load,” Dr Koopmans explains. “Most cruisers get sunburnt with a peak load of UV light. The skin reacts with an inflammation response: redness, swelling, pain and sometimes even blisters. Those are all short term effects. These are annoying, but when the inflammation has passed most people think that the problem is gone too. But that is not the case: if the skin cells haven’t had a chance to recuperate there is a bigger chance that the DNA is damaged. In the long term this can lead to skin cancer.”

While sudden sunburn is more likely to affect sailors who sail in seasonal waters, cruisers near the equator are exposed to year-round sun. “Chronic exposure to the sun vastly increases the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer,” Koopmans says.

Pro sailor Terry Hutchinson (left) has been open about the effects a life in the sun has had on his skin. Photo: American Magic

Dr Edit Olasz Harken is a dermatologist and founder of Harken Derm, a skin protection range developed and sold by sailing hardware company Harken. She highlights that one increased risk factor for sailors is that they tend to have started sailing early, and so are likely to have had sun exposure from a young age: “We know that five or more sunburns between the ages of 15-20, can increase your melanoma risk by almost 80%.”

Does having a tan protect you? “For white/light skin people who can tan a ‘base tan’ will give about an SPF 2-4 so yes, they can spend a bit longer time on the sun without burning – but this tan will not prevent them from getting skin cancer and premature skin ageing,” explains Dr Olasz Harken.

“People with olive skin who tan very quickly have less risk for skin cancer but chronic sun exposure will age their skin no matter how tanned they are. Furthermore, the tan can be misleading and allow more sun exposure which is ultimately very harmful.

“Those who are very white and cannot tan, only burn and freckle, should never attempt to develop any kind of base tan.”

Protecting yourself starts with discipline: choose a prevention method and stick to it. Hats, sunglasses and protective clothing are convenient, but you need to get into the habit of wearing them.

If your boat has a bimini, use it on very sunny days and especially around midday. If using sunscreen, apply it at least half an hour before going out and re-apply it every two hours (unless using a single application formulation), or sooner if you go swimming or are perspiring a lot.

Sunscreen and sealife

Besides high SPF protection, how do you choose a sunscreen?

Sunscreen is made with either chemical (organic) or mineral (anorganic) filters. Sunscreens with a chemical filter are absorbed by your skin. When the skin is exposed to UV radiation, the filter starts a chemical process that decreases the damaging effect of the UV radiation. But that process takes time, which is why it’s advised to apply it at least 30 minutes before sun exposure.

A mineral filter is like a shield on your skin: it reflects the damaging rays. That’s why mineral-based sunscreens are often very visible: they look like a white layer. Mineral sunscreens work straight away when applied to the skin.

Other factors also affect your choice, says dermatologist Dr Olasz Harken. “It depends on your skin type and where you live. Sunscreens in the US are regulated as over-the-counter drugs.

“In the US, zinc oxide gives the broadest protection, has the least environmental effect and it’s not absorbed into the blood. The problem with zinc oxide is that it can be chalky and white, therefore difficult to use especially for darker skin. Tinted versions can help but it’s impossible to make them as transparent as the chemical filters.”

There is increasing awareness of the effects of sunscreen on sealife, which can lead to coral bleaching and hormonal disruption in sea creatures.

“Two ingredients banned in Hawaii and US Virgin Islands due to the potential harm to the coral are oxybenzone and octinoxate (also known as benzophenone-3 and Octyl methoxycinnamate or OMC),” adds Dr Olasz Harken.

“But in Europe, where sunscreens are regulated as cosmetics, regulatory bodies are looking into titanium dioxide, octocrylene and homosalate.”

Just a shirt?

Sun-protective clothing is becoming more and more widespread, with a large range of stylish products for both adults and children with a high degree of UVF protection.

Garments made of natural materials like cotton, silk or wool do protect your skin against UV radiation, but clothing made of synthetic materials (elastane, polyamide, polyester) is better. In specific UVF-protective clothing extra chemical or mineral filters are added to the fabric, just like in sunscreen, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Darker colours protect better than lighter colours, though white can be more appealing to wear on a hot day.

The presence of these additives to the fabric can lead to an allergic reaction or irritation of the skin, so read the label carefully before buying if you have sensitive skin. Over time, the effect of the additives decreases because of immersion in water, either through swimming or being washed.

UV-protective neck gaiters and buffs/scarves are increasingly popular among professional sailors and those in the tropics to protect areas such as the ears and neck.

Get checked

If you spend a long time in the sun, consider getting checked out by a dermatologist. “[Sailors] should go for two reasons: to get a baseline professional skin check and a risk assessment based on their history. The dermatologist will then tell them how often they should visit,” advises Dr Harken. “But for those who burn and cannot tan, have a lot of moles and freckles, skin cancer history in their family, or if there is a suspicious lesion, go today!”


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