Wagaung picture of Thanaka kidsThe thrill of the first burn – I loved it each summer as a teen, but back then we didn’t worry about skin cancer and felt invincible. Am I the only Southern California girl who remembers wearing the first sunburn of summer as if it were a badge of honor?

That reckless time has given way to understanding more about cancer causing rays and to shelves filled with sun screen lotions, hats and clothing of every type and expense*. Today according to the Skin Cancer Foundation a person’s risk for melanoma doubles if they have had more 5 sunburns. So far I’ve dodged that bullet and still am occasionally surprised by a painful sunburn.

I got to thinking about how other cultures deal with sun and heat issues after seeing an Asian family on a very hot morning at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Their little boy, about 7, wore a pale, creamy paste over most of his face. I had seen this in pictures from Thailand and discovered that, in Burma and Thailand, a traditional way of dealing with burning rays has taken an artistic turn. According to Thomas Steissguth, in his book Myanmar in Pictures, apart from cosmetic beauty a ground paste, Thanaka, is favored for cosmetic beauty but  also provides a cooling sensation and protection from sunburn. Burmese women color their (and their children’s) faces with thanaka bark, (mureaexotica.) It’s ground into a powder, mixed with water and applied onto the face. Said to protect the skin against the sun, Thanaka provides a cooling sensation and also lightens the skin.

Thanaka woodBefore you rush out to buy some, know that the FDA has reported that in the grinding process some of the imported powder may be tainted with dangerous levels of lead (from utensils used by some Thai providers) and has restricted it’s availability in the U.S. I’d look for a reputable company that assures the purity of its product.

In India traditionally, holy men would wear a cooling paste of Sandalwood on their brows. I don’t claim to know if it was to help provide relief from the heat of enlightenment or sun!

Guru Dev, trip wellness

Guru Dev – Shankaracharya Swami Brahmananda Saraswati

Sunburn can happen winter as well as summer and reflection can be the culprit. Snow and even concrete can reflect harmful rays. Wearing a hat may help, but if you’re near water, frozen or not, you can still suffer a painful burn.

Water in the air can also disguise the danger. May gray can turn into June gloom along Southern Californian coasts but up to 80% of the dangerous UV rays from the sun still make it through the clouds.

Applying sun screen at least 20 minutes before getting out in the sun is as important as reapplying it every few hours.

Be careful to cover the most exposed areas: the tops of your eyelids, ears, nose, forehead, feet and shoulders. Spray sunscreens help with kids but be careful not to inhale and never spray directly on the face. A good practice is to spray into your palm and rub into the exposed areas of the face.

The EPA has a handy sunscreen guide that mentions the suns UV strength is at its peak between the hours of “10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during sunny summer days.” If you’re serious about sun safety monitor your local UV index by checking your specific zip code.

Another money saving tip if you’re looking to maintain healthy skin and a youthful glow is to make applying sunscreen a daily ritual. Using sunscreen daily reduces the skins aging process by as much as 24%. According to the American Skin Association wearing sunscreen is the single most important thing for healthy skin.

For all the hassle, wearing sunscreen or a sun block is worth the effort and cost effective in the long run. You’ll maintain a youthful skin, avoid dangerous melanoma and the pain of sunburn, which can ruin the most beautiful weather wherever you are.

More Information:

Here’s an article about the most effective sun screens for the money in the U.S.: The Best Sunscreen for your money.

More Thanaka Pictures on Trek Earth.

*REI’s website offers a detailed explanation of how sun protective clothing works and an explanation of a fairly new rating system called UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor, which is used specifically in rating apparel.