Burn-Free in Brazil: It’s All in the Application

Having grown up in Canada, I’ll never forget the sensation of those first days of summer (May? June?) when it was finally warm enough to don a t-shirt and shorts. The discovery of my body after months of bulky layers was inevitably somewhat of a shock – the bleached, sickly pallor of my skin always reminded me of one those cellophane wrapped, raw chicken breasts sold under fluorescent lighting in the meat section of the local supermarket. God, I was white! Sporting a pair of cut-offs, my father’s old Foster Grants, and a transistor radio, I couldn’t slap on that coconut-scented Coppertone deep tanning oil and hit the back yard fast enough.

From that tender age onward, I’ve always been convinced that life is simply better with a tan. As such, when I moved to Brazil, I was pleased that a side effect of my living in a tropical beach town would be never having to wake up to that supermarket chicken breast complexion. Instead, I would forever more radiate a caramelized glow of health and well-being.

Looking back, I’m amazed at that fervent sun-worshipping version of myself who arrived in Brazil armed with no more than SPF 4! After my first summer (and multiple burns), I came to realize that my use of SPF 4 was no different from the Bahians who slathered pure coconut oil on their bodies and then spent an entire day roasting themselves. Over time, I quickly worked up to SPF 8, then SP-15, and now I won’t be caught dead wearing anything less than SPF 30 (I also never expose myself between the scorching hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.).

The truth is that after more than a decade in the tropics, tanning has lost its cachet (replaced by fears of premature aging and skin cancer). Ironically, these days my Brazilian friends – all of whom possess much more melanin than I could ever dream of – comment with affectionate horror on how “branco” (white) I’m looking. I guess I’ve come full-circle!

This isn’t to say I never sit in the sun and never get burnt, although I’m quite careful about applying my sunscreen beforehand and trying to hit every last cubic millimeter of exposed skin. And yet I’m sometimes surprised to discover surprise patches of sunburn. Only recently did I make the belated discovery that seeking shelter from the noonday sun beneath one of those ubiquitous beach parasols doesn’t completely filter out all the intense summer rays – nor does it have any effect on their reflective properties (i.e. their bouncing upward from water or sand).

Moreover, a while ago, I came across the results of an interesting study conducted by the University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Medicine. Conducted on a sampling of “brancos” like me between the ages of 18 and 51, the study discovered that just as important as SPF factor is the amount of goop you actually apply to your skin.

According to Brazilian and international standards, the ideal quantity of sunblock required to protect your skin is 2 mg/cm² – which roughly works out to the equivalent of ½ a teaspoon for your face, another ½ teaspoon for your neck and arms, and a little over a whole teaspoon for the rest of your body.

Past studies, however, have consistently shown that most people actually apply far less (25 to 50 percent) than these recommended doses. What they don’t know is that in doing so, they proportionately undercut the SPF factor of their sunblock.

The University of São Paulo study is the first to measure the effects of under-application of sunblock. Results showed that applying 1 mg/cm² of SPF 30 to your face reduces the protection factor by over 50 percent (meaning that you’re essentially only using SPF 15). Moreover, as one of the study’s authors, dermatologist Sérgio Schalka, points out, even using correct amounts of sunblock only serves to “minimize” the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays. “It’s an illusion to think that sunscreen totally blocks out radiation.”

Tell it to Brazilians who boast the highest incidence of skin cancer (the world’s top killing cancer) on the planet.

Teaspoons and tablespoons aside, you need only walk into a local pharmacy to see why most Brazilians forsake sunscreen – it’s prohibitively expensive. While the Brazilian government has done an admirable job in the creation of low-cost generic drugs and medications for the masses, in Brazil, sunscreen is sold as a cosmetic for a decidedly upscale clientele. It’s significant that you’ll often find it placed amidst the Lancôme anti-aging creams.

For this reason, whenever I travel to North America, I always return to Brazil laden down with a year’s supply of good old-fashioned American sunscreen. I also always advise foreign visitors to Brazil to never leave home without it. And just remember that it’s not enough to buy it; you have to really know how to apply it. Far worse than being a raw chicken breast is being a grilled lobster.


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