Sun, Sand, Sea, and Skin Care
Medical expertise dermatologist-cosmetologist Eva Vasilievskaya, M.D., Ph.D., (Russia) & surgeon Pierre Konchalovsky (France), both of the European Medical Center in Moscow.
Text Ross Hunter, blistered tourist (England) art Catherine Hunter
In my simple history book, two great civilizations have been sun worshippers: the Ancient Egyptians and modern northern Europeans. The question is: Who is the wiser? The answer matters, a lot.
The Egyptians of yore had little choice but to acknowledge the great fireball’s supremacy. Life was dictated by the sun’s power, giving life and taking it away. Their top god, Ra, was the embodiment of the Sun, and all lesser deities and earthly life were subservient to the ray’s dictates. When you take your great boat trip along the Nile — and do not even think about dying before you have had the holiday of several lifetimes cruising between Luxor and Aswan — your guide will give you the full cosmology and culture, which I may have simplified slightly (apologies to Amun; I think the Sun has got to me).
The rhythm and symmetry of life along the Nile is as striking as it is eternal. My skin is up in goose pimples as I recall the image. Ra means ‘the creator’, and he takes many forms, a different being in morning, noon, and evening times. Ra is constantly aging.
And here is the difference between ancient and modern sun cultures. In Ancient Egypt, pale was good. The ruling elite protected themselves from the burning, dazzling in the comfort of the shade, while their workers toiled and perished (literally!) in the blistering blaze. Cast your mind’s eye over the tall, cool palaces, the elaborate headdresses, and the immaculate complexions of the pharaohs and their princesses, and contrast it with their loin-clothed slaves shrivelling in the glare. Not by coincidence is it that raisins and currants (the dehydrated grapes now superabundant on the Floridian littoral) are the products of the same clime and time.
But today, as we get richer, the more sun we seek! The “perma tan” is a mark of affluence, and we strive to soak up the rays, in the raw when we can, on the sun bed otherwise. The cheap fuel era has let us indulge ever more. But we are paying a price, personal as well as environmental: The World Health Organization reports a 38 percent rise in skin cancers in Europe in the last decade alone.
Care is needed here. Too much sun damages our skin in different ways. Not every spot or mole is a problem or a melanoma in waiting — most are harmless nevuses, benign birthmarks — but it is well worth getting an expert analysis, either to put your mind at rest or because early diagnosis is the vital route to successful treatment. Sudden changes in skin color or texture, an unexpected lump? See a specialist quickly.
More commonly, my traditional Anglo-Scottish tanning cycle (bleach white → rosy pink → lobster → peel → bleach white again, with a few freckles) is not only insuff erably painful, it is also wrecking my skin. “Farmer’s arms” and sailors’ weather-beaten faces are warnings that the collagen has gone. The protein that keeps the skin supple and smooth is burned off by UV rays, replaced by extra blood vessels close to the surface. The coarse, rough look is irreparable but preventable: Get an expert to prescribe the right UV protective cosmetics, in balance with your own skin type and photosensitivity. They are more elegant than the overcoat I sport at the beach.
Let’s end with a sunny smile.
As the Egyptians knew, when treated with respect, the Sun can be a powerful friend. The “sun cure” was our first victory over TB, and we all love the Sun. Nothing like it for beating the blues, curing depression, bubbling up the hemoglobin levels, pumping out the vitamins, and boosting the immune system. With expert advice and controlled UV intake, psoriasis, neurodermatitis, and eczema can all be seen off. (Sudden thought, all these tricky words for nasty illnesses come from Ancient Greek — they, too, must have known a bit about heliohazards).
But do take care, and get the right advice beforehand — or afterwards, if you have overdone it.