Suncream and Scuba Diving
Slip Slop Slap – A Koh Tao Necessity
When taking your PADI course on Koh Tao you will hopefully enjoy the lovely sunshine that we have most of the year round which means you will want to avoid becoming a big red lobster. Scuba diving is a very cool activity but it can lead to some unflattering tan lines and does leave you a little susceptible to getting sunburnt.
But the answer to this problem is sunscreen!
A Sometimes Difficult Relationship
Love it or hate it, sunscreen is one of the best tools around for protecting yourself against the effects of the sun and against skin cancer. Sunscreen is a lotion, spray, gel or other topical product that absorbs or reflects some of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation and thus helps protect against sunburn. Skin-lightening products have sunscreen to protect lightened skin because light skin is more susceptible to sun damage than darker skin.
What The Numbers Mean
Sunscreens are commonly rated and labelled with a sun protection factor (SPF) that measures the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays that reach the skin. For example, “SPF 15” means that 1/15th of the burning radiation reaches the skin through the recommended thickness of sunscreen. Other rating systems indicate the degree of protection from non-burning UVA radiation.
A Brief History
Here is a fascinating (no, it really is! Sunscreen doesn’t have to be boring) look at the history of the gooey stuff through the decades.
Zinc oxide, a physical sun blocker, was already being used for sun protection, and reportedly had been used for centuries for this purpose. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, an Australian named Norman Paul made the first association between sun exposure and skin cancer in a book he published in 1918.
According to Discover, scientists learned definitively in 1928 that UVB rays caused cancer. However, the suntan was starting to become more fashionable, thanks to Coco Chanel popularizing the look during this decade. The idea of the ‘healthy’ tan took hold.
According to the New York Times, a Swiss chemistry student named Franz Greiter suffered a sunburn while mountain climbing and decided to try to invent sunscreen. The future founder of L’Oreal, Eugene Schueller, released a product called Ambre Solaire in 1935, which promised to protect you from sunburn, while not affecting your ability to tan.
The race to create sunscreen heats up. Greiter released a product called Gletscher Crème (Glacier Cream) for the brand Piz Buin, which is still around today. At the same time, a pharmacist and former airman, Benjamin Green, discovered a concoction that the military had placed in life rafts to protect against sunburn, called Red Vet Pet.
According to Patty Agin, a scientist specializing in photobiology who’s been working at Coppertone for 30 years, the mixture was a petrolatum-based ointment.
He added cocoa butter and everyone’s favorite do-everything substance, coconut oil, into it. It eventually became Coppertone.
The most notable thing to happen in the 1950s was the creation of the now-iconic Little Miss Coppertone, who appeared on the brand’s bottles with her puppy and her adorable little pale butt hanging out.
Tanning became more common than ever in the 1960s, and was popularized by French actresses like Brigitte Bardot. If you were tanned, it meant you could afford to hang out on the French Riviera. Products during this era were geared towards maximizing a tan and weren’t protective.
The first tanning beds started appearing in the US in the latter part of the decade. Coppertone established its Solar Research Center and laid the groundwork for the first SPF (Sun Protection Factor) system, which the FDA later adopted as the standard. (The Skin Cancer Foundation notes that others were experimenting with SPF, but Coppertone was the first to label its products with an SPF designation).
According to Agin, manufacturers began to have a better understanding of how individual ingredients worked together. Homosalate and oxybenzone were the two primary sunscreen ingredients at the time.
Companies started introducing more specialty products, such as waterproof formulations. Scientists discovered that UVA rays were also responsible for causing cellular damage, and were probably the main culprit for wrinkles and photodamage.
Avobenzone, a chemical blocker, became more widely used for broad spectrum – meaning UVA and UVB – protection, but it was unstable in the sun. Christie Brinkley was the golden-skinned poster girl of the decade. (She recently mentioned at an event for her new skincare line that one of her biggest beauty regrets was tanning when she was younger.)
One word: Baywatch. Sunscreen technology became more advanced, and companies introduced formulations like sprays and gels that were more comfortable on the skin. Brands were also allowed to start labelling their products as UVA protective. In 1999, Baz Luhrmann released the song “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen”, which simultaneously confused and inspired everyone.
The FDA approved the first new sunscreen ingredient in many years, a UVA blocker called Mexoryl. Coppertone also introduced photo stabilised avobenzone, to further increase UVA protection. Micronized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide became available, which helped to eliminate the streaking usually associated with these physical blockers. Self-tanners became more popular.
Protect The Reef!
Before going scuba diving we encourage you to apply your sun screen early, at least 1 hour before heading to the water, this ensures that the sunscreen has time to soak into the skin, thus becoming more effective sun protection and less likely to wash off into the sea and damage our beautiful reefs.
Researchers estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers annually in oceans worldwide, and that up to 10 percent of coral reefs are threatened by sunscreen-induced coral bleaching. Four commonly found sunscreen ingredients can awaken dormant viruses in the symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae that live inside reef-building coral species.
Zooxanthellae provide coral with food energy through photosynthesis and contribute to the organisms’ vibrant color. Without them, the coral “bleaches”, turns white, then dies.
Read The Label
A product advertising itself as “reef safe” doesn’t necessarily mean what it says. Always look at ingredient lists to make sure reef-damaging substances (such as oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate and 4-methylbenzylidine camphor, all of which have been shown to cause coral bleaching even at low levels) aren’t included. Luckily, as more and more people fight to conserve and protect our world’s oceans and coral reefs ; reef friendly sunscreen is become more widely available and affordable.
As a Ginger myself I am no stranger to the effects of sunburn, I have literally been every shade of pink and red that you could possibly think of while being a PADI instructor living here in the tropical paradise of Koh Tao. Sun protection has become an integral part of my life! Or forever will I be doomed to be a Lobster girl!
Author: Nina Horne (PADI MSDT #355693)