Rays Of Hope -- Sun Protection Doesn't Come Only In A Bottle

PROTECTION FROM THE SUN ISN'T the first thing that springs to mind when most people think of Seattle.

If it ever comes to that, Shaun Hughes may be the one responsible.

Ten years ago Hughes was 26, in his first year of graduate business school back East, and fresh off a complete physical at home in Mukilteo. "You're the vision of good health," the doctor told him. "I don't want to see you for 10 years."

Two months later, Hughes was swimming with a friend. She didn't like the looks of a big mole on his back. Her opinion carried a certain weight; she was a five-year survivor of malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. She insisted Hughes see her specialist.

Though the mole on his back was ugly, the doctor said, it wasn't a problem. "But this thing is coming off." He pointed to a small blemish on the shoulder that Hughes hadn't even noticed. This is why we have specialists.

It was malignant melanoma, in its earliest stage. As promised, the spot came off, as did the surrounding tissue, down to the bone. Skin grafts followed.

The fair-skinned Hughes had been a typical Puget Sounder, sampling all sorts of outdoor activities, oblivious to the rain or sun. (Sound familiar?) Now he had to dodge the sun, boil in long-sleeved shirts, and make large contributions to sunscreen manufacturers. He discovered he could burn even through clothes, and resorted to placing paper towels on his shoulders, under his shirts, for added protection. That's when wheels started turning.

"I wanted to offer people like me a peace of mind," Hughes says, "so when they're going outside and doing something normal, they feel protected."

After two years of research, Hughes had a company (Sun Precautions), a line of clothing (Solumbra), and the beginning of a new industry.

Solumbra - the umbra is the darkest shadow from a solar eclipse - was the first, and is still the only, clothing that meets Food and Drug Administration standards. The FDA considers sun-protection apparel to be a medical device. In order to legally make claims about blocking ultraviolet radiation, a company must apply to the feds with supporting research.

The patent is pending on the specific combination of fiber, weaving, design, dying and finishing that is Solumbra. In testing, it earned sun-protective factor (SPF) ratings of 66 to 85. Hughes' company modestly labels it SPF 30+, which equates to all-day protection. Most sunscreens fall in the 8 to 15 SPF range.

All Solumbra shirts are long-sleeved, with higher collars than usual to protect the neck. Pants are long. Hats have extra-wide brims or neck drapes. Sunscreen still should be used on uncovered areas.

On a warm day last month, I dropped by the Sun Precautions office (105 Second Ave. N., just off Denny Way; call 441-6688 for a catalog) to pick up a white Safari Shade Shirt and give it a workout.

The fabric is soft and light - I wouldn't have guessed it was nylon. Although I rarely wear long sleeves while exercising, the generous cut easily let me hit a tennis ball against a wall and shoot baskets at a playground hoop. Mesh panels and vents kept me cool. During a run the fabric billowed from a little breeze, for a slight windbreaker effect. The design, especially the interior mesh, tended to keep the fabric from clinging to sweaty skin. The shirt's a keeper.

The clothes, including a children's line, cost from $19.95 to $84.95. They debuted June 1 last year. Almost immediately the special requests rolled in: pants for in the water, socks, a nose shield, even a single sleeve for the driver's left arm that rests over a rolled-down car window.

Hughes cringes at other companies' unsubstantiated claims of sun protection, especially when it affects kids. One product, designed to be placed over a crib, tested at SPF 3 "at best," he says.

All this is important to Hughes for reasons that don't appear on annual reports. Such as that friend who dragged him to the specialist.

"If I had gone in a year later," Hughes says, "I would have been one of the 6,500 people a year to die from malignant melanoma."

A year after Hughes' cancer was diagnosed, his friend's melanoma returned.

She died a month later.