Sun protection for sailors: a guide to staying safe


Janneke Kuysters explores sun protection options for sailors who often get a lot of sun exposure

Sailing on a sunny day is hard to beat: but aside from the mood-enhancing qualities of the sun, we all know its dangers. After finishing our world tour and returning to the Netherlands, one of the first things that struck me was how strange it seems to see people from northwestern Europe sitting deliberately in the sun, and how it is 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 outside. outside.

Dr. Karijn Koopmans is a doctor of dermatology and a keen sailor, exploring the coastal waters of Europe. She explains the effects of sunlight on our body: “Starting with the skin: sunlight makes it thicker and it stimulates the production of pigments, so we tan. But the downside is that sunlight breaks down the elastic fibers in your skin and will make it wrinkled. Worse, sunlight can damage the DNA in your skin cells, which can lead to later-stage skin cancer.

“Sunlight is good for your body because it stimulates the production of vitamin D, which you need to build bone mass and protect against internal types of cancer, such as bowel cancer. Sunlight also inhibits the activity of certain immune cells, particularly those in your skin.This is taken advantage of in the treatment of psoriasis or eczema, where marked improvement is seen when the skin is exposed to UV rays. The downside is that you are more susceptible to cold sores and the like.

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

There are three ways to avoid sun damage: behavioral, mechanical and chemical measures. Behavioral measures are simply to stay out of the sun during its most intense periods (1200-1500). On an average sailing day this may not be possible, particularly in tidal areas – we can’t always choose when we can be outside or not. The mechanical measures consist of covering up: wearing a hat and sunglasses, light and anti-UV clothing, using a bimini while sailing and adding a awning or other sun awning at the port. Finally, chemical measures consist of applying sunscreen and lip protection.

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

Practical measures

Sailors are increasingly exposed to the harmful effects of the sun, 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 northwestern Europe and the other half sailing near the equator.

We asked what measures they use to protect themselves, and our survey indicated that most cruise passengers don’t like to use sunscreen. Responses included complaints about sticky hands, grease stains and the challenge of washing them off at the end of the day. Staying out of the sun was the second favorite tactic, but most cruisers said they used mechanical measures the most: hats, sunglasses, clothing and biminis.

Cruisers in Europe tended to be more relaxed, with 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 to make more use of the bimini.

Our questionnaire also revealed a big gap between what cruise lines know they should do and what they actually do. One of them summarizes: “The sunscreen stains my cockpit cushions and when I have the bimini out, I can’t see my sails. So I will have my skin checked every two years”. Many cruisers said they tan fairly quickly and feel protected by their darker skin tone.

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

False confidence?

So how big is the risk really? “There is a difference between maximum sun load on your skin and continuous load,” says Dr. Koopmans. “Most cruisers get sunburned with maximum UV light load. The skin reacts with an inflammatory response: redness, swelling, pain and sometimes even blistering. These are all short-term effects. These are annoying , but when the inflammation has passed, most people think the problem is gone too. But that’s not the case: if the skin cells haven’t had a chance to recover, there’s more chances of DNA damage.In the long term, this can lead to skin cancer.

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

Professional sailor Terry Hutchinson (left) has been open about the effects of living in the sun 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 equipment company Harken. She points out that an increased risk factor for sailors is that they tend to have started sailing early, and are therefore likely to have been exposed to the sun from an early age: “We know that five sunburns or older between the ages of 15 and 20 can increase your risk of melanoma by almost 80%. »

Does a tan protect you? “For white/light skinned people who can tan, a ‘base tan’ will give around an SPF 2-4, so yes they can spend a bit more time in the sun without burning – but that tan won’t stop them. not to get skin cancer and premature skin aging,” says Dr. Olasz Harken.

“People with dark skin who tan very quickly have a lower risk of skin cancer, but chronic sun exposure will age their skin, regardless of how tanned they are. greater exposure to the sun which is ultimately very harmful.

“Those who are very white and cannot tan, only burns and freckles, should never try to develop a base tan.”

Protecting yourself starts with discipline: choose a prevention method and stick to it. Hats, sunglasses and protective clothing are practical, but you have to make a habit of wearing them.

If your boat is equipped with a bimini, use it on very sunny days and especially around noon. If you use sunscreen, apply it at least half an hour before going outside and reapply it every two hours (unless you’re using a one-time application formula), or sooner if you’re going swimming or sweat a lot.

Sunscreen and marine life

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

Sunscreen is made with chemical (organic) or mineral (inorganic) filters. Sunscreens with a chemical filter are absorbed by your skin. When the skin is exposed to UV rays, the filter triggers a chemical process that decreases the harmful effect of UV rays. But this process takes time, so it is advisable to apply it at least 30 minutes before sun exposure.

A mineral filter is like a shield on your skin: it reflects harmful rays. This is why mineral sunscreens are often very visible: they look like a white layer. Mineral sunscreens work immediately 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. In the United States, sunscreens are regulated as over-the-counter drugs.

“In the United States, zinc oxide offers the broadest protection, has the least effect on the environment, and is not absorbed into the blood. The problem with zinc oxide is that it can be chalky and white so difficult to use especially for darker skin tones. Tinted versions can help but it is impossible to make them as transparent as chemical filters.

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

“Two ingredients banned in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands due to potential coral damage 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 like cosmetics, regulators are looking at titanium dioxide, octocrylene and homosalate.”

Just a shirt?

Sun protection clothing is becoming increasingly popular, with a wide range of stylish products for adults and children with a high degree of UVF protection.

Clothes made of natural materials such as cotton, silk or wool certainly protect your skin from UV rays, but clothes made of synthetic materials (elastane, polyamide, polyester) are preferable. In specific UVF protective clothing, additional chemical or mineral filters are added to the fabric, just like in sunscreens, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Darker colors protect better than lighter colors, although white may be more appealing to wear on a hot day.

The presence of these additives in the fabric may cause an allergic reaction or skin irritation, so read the label carefully before purchasing if you have sensitive skin. Over time, the effect of additives decreases due to immersion in water, either while swimming or washing.

Neck warmers and UV buffs/scarves are becoming increasingly popular among professional sailors and those in the tropics to protect areas such as the ears and neck.

Get verified

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

If you enjoyed this….

Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for offshore cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we bring you inspiring adventures and practical features to help you realize your sailing dreams.

Expand your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% on the sale price.


Comments are closed.