Information on gear that will really save your skin
04 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
For years I’ve had a very macho view of all aspects of sun protection, never taking it quite as seriously as every one else around me, lumping it in with the other modern obsessions like always having at least a gallon of bottled water at hand, the terror a near by phone masts and nits (if you haven’t got kids then you hopefully won’t have experienced this one). You see for me the sun was still a glorious thing – something I recon you can only truly appreciate when it pops over the horizon and hits your face when the predawn temperatures are -40 degrees C – and again when it pops down over the horizon and the cold crashes in behind it.
For me sunscreen had always been ‘sun tan cream’, sun glasses were just for posers who wanted to look like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, and people who wore bandanas were just going prematurely bald. Perhaps this attitude came about because I thought I didn’t spend enough time under its baking rays for it to really matter, preferring instead to climb when it was at its weakest, or sit at this computer, Golem like, until it set behind the Tescos down the hill. Sure I’d been to hot places, but usually I just got fried like all Brits did, taking lobster sized blisters, skin shedding like autumn leaves, and the odd bought of heat stroke as just part of climbing. Then this January I went out to New Zealand climbing and came face to face with the reality of what the sun can do, and more importantly will be doing with more and more ferocity in the coming years. Basically I did what I always did, went on the hill with no hat, sunscreen or sunglasses. I soon noticed that I was the odd one out, with the locals looking like extras out of Laurence of Arabia, all chanting some song about “mad dogs and English men”. I’d got an inclining that something was different in the fact that everyone seemed obsessed about me having a hat all the time and for the first few days I though this was some kind of druggy code. People also seemed to be constantly rubbing sun screen into their legs, and dressing like Roger Moore. Even when they wore their shorts – of which Kiwi climbers are famed – they’d wear polypro long johns underneath. In fact some even wore long trousers!
Once on the hill I realised why these precautions were vital, as I quickly began to turn red, even on days that seemed as overcast as a typical muggy day in Sheffield. It turned out that New Zealand had very little ozone above it, and that UV rays were as big a problem as avalanches, rock falls and dodgy river crossings, and they told me that sun related cancers were the fastest growing cancers on the planet. All had tales of scary skin complaints and visits to the doctors, and I saw that my old fashioned approach was downright dangerous. Suddenly I wished I had a hat.
Not wanting to look like a show off, the term ultraviolet (UV) means “beyond violet”, with ultra being Latin for beyond, with UV light being the shortest wavelengths of visible light (UV-A is also known as black light, as it is invisible to our eyes). Some animals can see these UV rays, such as some birds, which have developed special plumage that only shows up best via UV light. One interesting factoid is that the urine of some animals is much easier to spot with UV – a handy tip if it’s also the case with humans – allowing anyone with a UV lamp to find the nearest telephone box or bush shelter.
Obviously ultraviolet light – like all light – hits us after a tiring 93 million mile journey from the sun, and is made up of and is split into three bands; UV-A, UV-B and UV-C. The atmosphere helps to reduce the intensity of the rays, filtering out the most harmful rays (UV-C), plus they are further slowed by dust, pollution and clouds (this is why climbing in non polluted mountains at high altitude increases your risk of sun damage, plus for every 1000 metres you ascend, the level of UV radiation increases by between 10% and 12%). The actual wavelengths of UV light are roughly 400 to 320 nanometres (nm) for UV-A (an nanometre is a billionth of a metre), 320 to 290 nm for UV-B, and 290 to 200 nm for UV-C, with visible light being 700 to 400 nm. Although it may seem backwards, the shorter the wavelength and the lower the number, the greater the energy level of the light and the more damage it can do. For example, direct exposure to UV-C for a length of time would destroy the skin. Fortunately, UV-C is completely absorbed by the atmosphere before it reaches the ground (the ozone layer reduces the intensity of light in the range of 200 - 340 NM). The longer wavelengths of UV-A can pass through the atmosphere, with the amount of UV-B depends on many factors. It’s often said that UV can pass straight trough clouds – but if this was true we’d be wearing sun hats all year long. The best rule of thumb is if the sun is still shining brightly enough through the clouds that it makes your eyes hurt, or severely squint, then about 50% of the UVB is coming through. If it is cloudy enough that you can’t really tell where the sun even is, then UVB strength is likely at less than 20%. If the clouds are dense enough that it seems dark and gloomy, or if the clouds are actually raining a real rain, then UVB risk is probably negligible.
Every climber’s experienced sun damage, in fact it’s a badge of honour having a deep tan, freckles, blond hair and the odd wrinkle. All these things are signs of damage, and could be the procure to the seriously un cool skin conditions like solar Keratoses (small rough bumps and scabs on the skin also known as sunspots), Basal cell carcinomas (scabby growths) and most serous of all, melanoma (I’m sure you’ve heard of that one).
I don’t have the space to go into why UV damages our skin (it’s all to do with DNA), but the most important thing to understand is the huge increase in the likely hood of suffering from some serious form of sun damage, with figures showing for example that since 1930 the chances of suffering from melanoma have increased from 1 in 1,500 to 1 in 90 in 2005.
It’s been known for a long time that UV-A penetrated the skin more deeply than UV-B, but it was thought that only UV-B was harmful, but new research is suggesting that UV-A is also potentially deadly, as the photons can also be absorbed by the DNA and cause critical mutations like UV-B. This fact seems to be corroborated by the increase in skin cancers from users of sun beds, which typically only project UV-A.
UV-B is by far the worse of the two, leading to the most skin cancers in humans, eye damage, and numerous other environmental effects. In the past this was no biggy, as our wonderful ozone layer filtered out much of the UV-B, this is rapidly changing with is depletion. The amount of UV-B radiation in natural sunlight is dependent upon the concentration of ozone molecules in the atmosphere, and the level of ozone is effected by several factors including day, location, season and altitude. There is less ozone over the equator than over other parts of the world, exempting the seasonal ozone hole in Antarctica, but with the current pattern of ozone depletion the incidence of skin cancer is set to continue to rise at least until the year 2050 and probably beyond. For each 1% reduction in ozone, the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancer will increase by 2%. This means that a sustained 10% decrease in the average ozone concentration would lead to about 250,000 additional non-melanoma skin cancers each year. It’s time to get yourself a hat.
Incidentally there is also an increase in UV-B in the southern hemisphere in summer, as the earth is closer to the sun – which gives New Zealand and Australia 10% more UV-B then the UK.
UV-B rays can cause many eye related injuries – meaning it’s vital that they are protected. These include:-
Macular degeneration — Macular degeneration is an eye disorder, which causes damage to the central part of the retina, the paper-thin tissue at the back of the eye where light-sensitive cells send visual signals to the brain. Sharp, clear, “straight ahead” vision is processed by the macula. Damage to the macula results in the development of blind spots and blurred or distorted vision. When the macula becomes damaged, many daily activities such as driving and reading become increasingly difficult and it is the major cause of irreversible vision loss in Caucasians 50 yrs and older.
Cataracts — Exposure to UV radiation over several years may be a major cause of cataracts, a clouding of the lens. About a third of people over 65 have cataracts in the UK in one or both eyes.
Burns — Over-exposure to ultraviolet light, such as walking across a glacier with unprotected eyes, can cause a temporary, but painful burn to the surface of the eye (cornea), similar to a sunburn on the skin. Most people only expect this to be a problem on blue sky days but you should follow the same advice on clouds mentioned above. Often the first warning signs are irritation of the eyes, but the full effects will probably be felt around 8 hours after exposure – when your eyes become bloodshot and feel like they’re full of iron fillings and will remain like that for up to 36 hours. To treat snow blindness apply a cool, wet compresses to help ease the burn on each eye and take an oral pain medication like ibuprofen. Try and keep the eyes covered for as long as possible, as light will irritate the eyes. Luckily there should be no long term side effects.
Pterygium — An abnormal, but usually non-cancerous, growth on the corner of the eye near the nose. A pterygium can grow over the cornea, partially blocking vision and sometimes requires surgery to be removed.
Cancer — Repeated over-exposure to UV rays can cause cancer of the eyelids and surrounding skin.
If you ask most people to name some form of sun protection the first thing that comes into their heads is sun screen. In fact sunscreen should be considered as the last line of defence against UV, as it’s proven to be unreliable at giving full protection. If you look at nearly all desert peoples they all protect themselves not by lathering themselves in coconut oil and monkey juice, but by simply covering up (yes I am ignoring those trend bucking Aborigines!). And anyone heading into the UV should follow their example.
First off did you know that clothing also has sun protection factor like sun screen? No you probably wouldn’t because most manufactures don’t bother telling you this, but it is important as UV can penetrate your layers. Some manufactures like Patagonia and The North Face included this in their summer clothing descriptions (usually having an SPF of 30), but most of the time it’s down to common sense (although I think this is an area that needs more promotion). First off although some fabrics offer more protection then others (such as 100% polyester which provides 2 to 3 times more protection then any other fabric) it’s more down to the weave rather then the fabric, with a tighter weave having a higher SPF. By doubling up on layers you also double up the SPF. Darker colours also increase this, with black providing 5 times more protection then white – which kind of goes against what you’re brought up to believe, and wet fabrics loose up to a third of their SPF.
The most important area to concentrate with clothing is the head, as this has the most exposed skin if you’re wearing the correct clothing (long sleeves and trousers). First off you need a good sun hat, and if you’re a climber then this will have to be of a baseball style (so it will fit under a helmet). To this you should attach (via Velcro or you can sew it on) a piece of fabric ‘Foreign Legion’ style to protect the sides of the face and the neck. You can further increase protection for very hostile places (like glaciers and snow fields at mid day), by wearing a second bandana (or Buff) over your mouth and nose – stage coach robber style. With a pair of sunglasses this should provide a huge amount of protection. This approach will not only reduce UV damage, but also keep you cooler and more comfortable.
Sunscreen (it’s no longer called sun block as it’s a misnomer) works by either organic chemical compounds that absorb ultraviolet light (such as oxybenzone) or an opaque material that reflects light (such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide etc), or a combination of both (some people mix a small amount of zinc oxide with a traditional high SPF cream in a film canister for example). These lotions are rated with sun protection factors (SPF). The SPF numbers on the packaging can range from as low as 2 to greater than 60, and these numbers refer to the product’s ability to deflect the sun’s burning rays. The sunscreen SPF rating is calculated by comparing the amount of time needed to produce a sunburn on sunscreen protected skin to the amount of time needed to cause a sunburn on unprotected skin. For example, if a sunscreen is rated SPF 2 and a fair-skinned person who would normally turn red after ten minutes of exposure in the sun uses it, it would take twenty minutes of exposure for the skin to turn red. A sunscreen with an SPF of 15 would allow that person to multiply that initial burning time by 15, which means it would take 15 times longer to burn, or 150 minutes. SPF protection does not actually increase proportionately with a designated SPF number. In higher SPFs, such as an SPF of 30, 97 percent of sun burning rays are deflected, while an SPF of 15 indicates 93 percent deflection and an SPF of 2 equals 50 percent deflection. This isn’t to say that higher numbers are unnecessary, as they do increase protection in unusually hostile environments (mountains rather then beaches), but they are much more expensive then an SPF 15 cream, so this should be most climbers bench march SPF. Whatever the PTF, reapply it more often to areas that are prone to burning, and use a buddy system to make sure everything’s covered, and keep an eye out for each other throughout the day.
While SPF is the universal measurement of UV-B protection, no comparable standard exists for UV-A and it comes as a surprises many people is that most standard sunscreens absorb very little UV-A, which may be critical to the creation of skin cancer. Approximately 65% of melanomas and 90% of basal and squamous cell skin cancers are attributed to UV exposure, but scientists don’t know how much the UV-A impacts on these figures, but Australian researchers found that UV-A rays caused DNA damage to the cells deep within the skin. It is this layer of cells that regenerates our skin and it is feared that damage to the DNA of these cells may increase a person’s risk of developing skin cancer.
The danger is that people will assume that they are fully protected once they’ve applied their sunscreen, which isn’t the case. The result has been an increase in specific ‘broad spectrum protection’ sunscreens that provide protection for both UV-A and UV-B, but the underlying point is that we mustn’t assume that these sunscreens alone will protect us. So whether you’re smearing in tanning oil or clown makeup it’s vital to cover up as much as possible, and use sunscreen in the areas where this isn’t achievable.
There are so many types of sunscreen that selecting the right one can be quite confusing. Sunscreens are available in many forms including ointments, creams, gels, lotions and wax sticks. The type of sunscreen you choose is a matter of personal choice. Ideally, sunscreens should be water resistant, so they cannot be easily removed by sweating or swimming, and should have an SPF of 15 or higher that provides broad-spectrum coverage against all ultraviolet light wavelengths. Ingredients which provide broad-spectrum protection include benzophenones (oxybenzone), cinnamates (octylmethyl cinnamate and cinoxate), sulisobenzone, salicylates, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and avobenzone (Parsol 1789).
It’s best to have a personal tube of sunscreen, with the smaller sized tubes (40ml) being best, as thy can be easily stowed in a handy pocket so as to make replying more likely. Lip balm with a SPF of at least 15 should also always be carried, and should be hung around the neck on a piece of cord for regular application (sunscreen on the lips is quickly removed so needs constant attention, plus you can dab it on your nose while you’re at it). I won’t go into specifics but good quality cream and balms that fill all the above criteria are available from RoC, Uvistat, Piz Buin (mountain), Coppertone, Spectraban, U.V Control and KINeSYS.
The importance of good quality eye ware has never been higher, both in the high mountains and just out and about, with UV levels increasing wherever you may climb. Many people imagine that good quality glasses will cost a fortune, no doubt clocking the price of the latest Oakley or Ray bans in the duty free. This isn’t the case and it’s vital that you make a distinction between fashion and function.
First off it’s not worth buying expensive sun glasses or goggles. Why? Well first of they’ll get scratched faster then a James brown vinyl at a hip hop gig if you’re wearing them on routes, stowing them in your rucksack, and propping them on your head in a French ‘style’. What you want is a solid pair that fits well and provides good coverage over the eyes (and that means FULL for high altitude), and passes CE standards.
These standards are split into UV protection (A, B and C), which should be 100%, and the visible light that can be transmitted – ranging from Category 0 (clear saferty glasses) to 4 (Alpine and Himalayan mountaineering). For climbers the categories to choose from are 3 or 4:
Category 3: 8% - 18% visible light transmitted. Suitable for general use, plus Alpine and Himalayan mountaineering, but not for prolonged exposure at high altitude.
Category 4: 3% - 8% visible light transmitted. For prolonged exposure at high altitude. Will be found too dark for everyday use, and are dangerous for driving (in fact they are illegal – so go for that French ‘style’ when passing any police cars).
Go for nylon (not plastic) frames that are bendy (so they don’t break), and warm when it’s super cold (you won’t look like Tom Cruise in Top Gun with those aviator ray bans frozen to the bridge of your nose!). Get a soft glasses retainer that works, and lens wise don’t get too bogged down in the hype – just make sure they’re polycarbonate – so they won’t break (scratch resistance doesn’t cover cheese grating your face up Matinee!). Make sure your glasses come with a good quality rigid case so they remain in one piece (make sure it’s bright, or put stickers on it so it’s not forgotten), and consider carrying a second cheap pair in case of emergencies (if you’re snow blind but need to move wear both pairs) unless you’re also carrying goggles. If it’s going to be roasting make yourself a nose shield out of a piece of windproof fleece. Price wise I wouldn’t pay more then £40 for a pair of good quality sunglasses, and the same for goggles.
The most important aspect of all though is that they fit, so take your time trying them on, as leaving them off is not an option these days.
Goggles are a good stand by incase your glasses break, and can also be worn be spectacle wearers (as long as they have slots in the foam). Apart from UV they also work wonders when the proverbial hits, saving your eyes from both the wind, the cold and bighting hail and snow. Goggles follow the same CE categories as sunglasses –and all the same advice applies. The main point of interest is that they have double lenses, fit your face and have the correct lens colour, as this can make or break your route choices!
• In low light and fog, yellow, gold and amber lenses filter out blue light, emphasizing shadows in the snow so you can see bumps better. They also work well in moderate light.
• In bright light, dark tints (especially green) will keep your eyes more comfortable.
• Polarized lenses block reflected glare off the horizontal plane and are great when it’s bright out. But they may not be ideal near the end of the day when long shadows appear in the snow, because they are usually made with a darker tint than most sun lenses.
• Mirror (or “flash”) coatings will block some, but not a lot of glare. They are usually more of a cosmetic than a practical feature.
• For night climbing use only clear lenses.
Personally I’ve never paid that much attention to what lenses I have, as they spend much of the time in my sack, but clear goggles would be best for the UK (cat 0) and darker tints for the high mountains (cat 3), and in fact the goggles I use are a pair of 15 Euro kids ones.
One aspect that is annoying when wearing eye ware is fogging. Most products ship with an anti fogging coating that soon wears off, but there are alternatives. Products such as Pro Fog, Fog Tech and the fantastically named Cat Crap, will make a real difference when it comes to stay moisture free. If you have trouble finding these kinds of products in climbing shops, search on the web for paint balling and motorbike retailers, or try the old school method of just using washing up liquid (I’m told that’s what ainsley harriot uses!).
If you somehow find yourself without any eye ware at all, and the sun will defiantly fry your eye balls then it’s time to improvise. The way to do this is to somehow reduce the amount of light entering the eye to a minimum. Eskimos used to use a piece of wood with slits in (no fogging!), and you can do the same by using a piece of material in the same way (scarf, reversed balaclava or sock). Just remember though that when you get back to that trendy bar to take it off!
If your wear prescription glasses what are your options? Probably the best one is to switch over to disposable or monthly contact lenses, as this makes life far easier all round, allowing you to wear any glasses or goggles you want. If that’s not an option then it has to be prescription sunglasses. In the past I’ve had trouble getting any descent info from any high street shops that do such lenses, and it seems that the best bet is to mail order them from www.heavyglare.com in the US, which seems to be the answer to ever 4 x eyed climbers dreams.
Skin cancer is the fastest rising cancer in the UK – and probably the world, and in the UK there are 65,000 cases each year, with 2,000 proving fatal. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and begins in melanocytes— cells that make the skin pigment called melanin. Although melanoma accounts for only about 4% of all skin cancer cases, it causes most skin cancer-related deaths. The good news is that melanoma is often curable if it is detected and treated in its early stages. In men, melanoma is found most often on the area between the shoulders and hips or on the head and neck. In women, melanoma often develops on the lower legs. It may also appear under the fingernails or toenails or on the palms or soles. The chance of developing melanoma increases with age, but it affects all age groups and is one of the most common cancers in young adults.
The fairer your skin, the higher your risk of skin cancer. If you freckle or burn in the sun, you are at highest risk. Still, people of all skin colours can develop skin cancer.
If you must be in the sun, cover up with clothing, sunscreen and sunglasses. Having a sun burn is more then just uncool. Remember that a sun tan is skin damage. Sunscreens should be applied to dry skin 15-30 minutes BEFORE going outdoors. When applying sunscreen, pay particular attention to the face, ears, hands and arms, and coat the skin liberally. One ounce, enough to fill a shot glass, is considered the amount needed to cover the exposed areas of the body properly. Be careful to cover exposed areas completely – a missed spot could mean a patchy, painful sunburn. Don’t forget that lips get sunburned too, so apply a lip balm that contains sunscreen, preferably with an SPF of 15 or higher. If you’re travelling on snow and ice (glaciers) then remember reflected light, meaning you need to apply sun block to the underside of the nose, chin and eye lids (and if you’re wearing floppy shorts wear underwear!) The adage “The Higher the Sun, the Bigger the Burn” as the sun’s ultraviolet rays are strongest between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. - a good time to stay in the shade if you can.
Don’t forget to use a broad spectrum sun screen that protects you from both UV-A and UV-B rays. If you have children who climb apply sunscreen before they go out. Research shows that regular use of sunscreen during the first 18 years of life could reduce the lifetime incidence of skin cancer by 78%.
How do I treat a sunburn?
No matter how hard you try you’ll always end up getting some sunburn. This can range from simple embarrassing red marks and ‘panda eyes’ right through to dangerous and deliberating deep skin damage. There are several types of burns and burn treatments.
Remember that you may not immediately see the effects of overexposure to the sun. It may take up to 24 hours before the full damage is visible. The two most common sunburns are first-degree burns and second degree burns. First-degree sunburns cause redness and will heal, possibly with some peeling, within a few days. These can be painful and are best treated with cool baths and moisturizers or over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams. Avoid the use of “-caine” products(such as benzocaine), which may cause sensitivity to a broad range of important chemicals. Aspirin taken orally may lessen early development of sunburn. Lavender essential oil also works well if you’re feeling a bit new age, and if you really want to go to town urine also works wonders (or is that for jelly fish?)
Second degree sunburns blister and can be considered a medical emergency if a large area is affected. When a burn is severe, accompanied by a headache, chills or a fever, seek medical help right away. Be sure to protect your skin from the sun while it heals and thereafter. Most studies have found an association between sunburn and enhanced risk for melanoma, particularly if you suffered severe childhood or adolescent sunburn since there is more time for melanoma to develop over your lifetime.