Fifty years ago, it was hard to avoid sunburn. Sunscreens were crude. The most effective, zinc oxide cream, went on ghostly white and looked funny, though it did keep lifeguards from burning their noses.
Despite the current availability of highly effective sunscreens and lightweight clothing that protects against ultraviolet radiation, some people still get burned. We recently received this question:
"I have extremely sun-sensitive skin. In fact, today I got a bad sunburn after spending the day on a shaded porch reading a book.
"I really hate how sensitive my skin is to getting sunburnt, but I also hate having to reapply sunscreen every half-hour or so during the summer. Do you know of any way I can increase my tolerance of ultraviolet rays so that I don't have to apply sunscreen so often?"
Surprisingly, there is some research showing that consuming certain foods, vitamins or over-the-counter medicines may help the skin resist sunburn. None of these would be a substitute for regularly applying a high-SPF sunscreen, but they might help someone like our sensitive reader.
One place to start is with diet. Scientists at the University of Manchester investigated the power of lycopene in tomato paste to reduce skin reddening from ultraviolet exposure. Twenty healthy, fair-skinned British women were given either 55 grams a day of tomato paste in olive oil or plain olive oil as a placebo for 12 weeks. Before and after the intervention, each woman was exposed to a measured amount of ultraviolet light. The women who been eating tomato paste were able to tolerate more ultraviolet exposure without skin damage (British Journal of Dermatology, January 2011).
Another reader reported: "Instead of sunscreen, I take megadoses of vitamin C to protect myself. This has worked for more than 20 years against sunburn. Of course, I don't tan or freckle either. I take 3 grams of C each day, and once every year or two I might get a little pink on the most sensitive areas (tip of my nose, neck and shoulders early in the summer); otherwise, the C protects me against the radiation of the sun."
While we don't advocate going without sunscreen, some data suggest that vitamin C may offer modest protection against ultraviolet radiation. A study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology (February 2005) demonstrated that the combination of antioxidants vitamin C and E could reduce DNA damage caused by sun exposure. Such a dose should be discussed with a doctor.
Aspirin also has been studied for its capacity to reduce sun sensitivity. We received this question from a reader: "I've been using aspirin to help prevent sunburn for years. I just read that aspirin can reduce the incidence of skin cancer. Is there a connection?"
A German study showed that people taking 250 milligrams of aspirin prior to sun exposure were less likely to burn (Photochemistry and Photobiology, October 2001). More recently, Danish researchers published a case-control study showing that people who took aspirin regularly were at lower risk of squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma (Cancer, Oct. 1, 2012). Regular aspirin use can be irritating to the stomach.
Some people think that clouds will protect them from the sun, but ultraviolet rays can still burn on an overcast day. That's why it is important to use protective clothing and sunscreen for outdoor activities regardless of the weather.
v v Q: A couple of weeks ago, someone wrote to you about persistent lice in a child's hair, regardless of what lice treatment was used. You suggested coating the child's hair with mayonnaise or Vaseline.
DO NOT USE Vaseline! Vaseline is not water-soluble, nor does it respond to any soap or shampoo on the market.
When I was in junior high, Vaseline in girls' hair was an initiation stunt that made parents and beauty salons despair. There was simply no way to remove it. Please don't suggest this again.
Answer: It is extremely difficult to get petroleum jelly (Vaseline) out of hair. We learned this many years ago after hearing from angry parents.
A consensus eventually developed that the first step for removal is to treat with mineral (or baby) oil. The second step is to wash the mineral oil (and at least some of the Vaseline) out with Dawn dish detergent (keeping it out of eyes). The third step is regular shampoo.
Other people have reported success with Goop (mechanics' hand cleanser), Campsuds (camping soap from Sierra Dawn), Charlie's Soap all-purpose cleaner or greasepaint (theatrical makeup) remover.
Different lice-eradication strategies can be found at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com. Favorites include Cetaphil cleanser that hardens overnight and suffocates lice or rinsing with Listerine to kill the critters.
Q: As a biologist, let me offer my thoughts on heartburn remedies. For all but a few people, suppressing stomach acid with drugs is the last thing to do. I suspect that most heartburn is due to insufficient stomach acid rather than too much.
Answer: Stomach acid is critical for digesting protein, absorbing calcium, iron and vitamin B-12 and preventing bacterial infection (Current Opinion in Gastroenterology, November 2012). For millions of years, virtually all animals have depended on strong stomach acid for digestion and protection (Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, Suppl. 193, 1992).
Although antacids and acid-suppressing drugs (lansoprazole, omeprazole, etc.) are mainstays for treating heartburn, many readers have reported that low-carb diets can prevent symptoms. Others say that almonds or even apple-cider vinegar eases their discomfort.
Q: I have successfully taken Greenstone alprazolam (generic Xanax) to control epilepsy for more than a year. I was switched to a different generic (a round pill), and within a week of starting it I had my first seizure in 21/2 years! My pharmacist was able to special-order the Greenstone, so hopefully it won't be an issue for me again.
Answer:. You are not the only one to report seizures after being switched to a generic version of an anticonvulsant medicine. The question of whether anti-epilepsy drugs are truly bioequivalent is controversial among doctors as well as patients (The Lancet Neurology, March 2010; Annals of Pharmacotherapy, November 2011).
Obviously, you have done well on the Greenstone generic. Our advice to people with epilepsy is to avoid switching between generics if possible.
In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Email them via their website: www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.