Sun Precautions -- Skin Cancer Inspires Protective Clothing Line

The day after a sunburn, there's that burning feeling. Whenever the sun strikes the sensitive spot, it hurts. The sun rays sting even through some clothes. What if that sensitive spot was more than sun-reddened. What if it was cancer-prone? Or what if your skin was sun sensitive because of a burn scar or rash from lupus? What would you wear outside?

Shaun Hughes was considering those questions when he set out to develop his sun-protective clothing line, Solumbra. The line has racked up 100,000 customers worldwide in the three years since Hughes opened shop in the sunny metropolis of Seattle.

Yes, contradictory as it may seem, Seattle is the home of the nation's only line of sun-protective clothing that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The company, Sun Precautions, is still small enough to keep track of many of its customers:

-- A couple from Toronto en route to Hawaii stopped in Seattle to pick up Solumbra outfits.

-- The 45 entrants in this year's 139-mile ultra-marathon race from Death Valley to Mount Whitney (a 48-hour endeavor) bought their running outfits from Solumbra.

-- A woman diagnosed with lupus in the Tampa, Fla., area is able to leave her home and return to work because of her Solumbra outfits. (Lupus is an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system fights itself. A skin rash associated with lupus can be triggered by sun exposure.)

-- The grandmother of the youngest survivor of the Oklahoma City bomb blast requested a toddler coverall to protect healing burns.

-- Hollywood's Cybill Shepherd and Tom Selleck both ordered Solumbra sun hats, following their dermatologists' advice.

A small segment of the population is hypersensitive to the sun, and for them, sun-protective clothing can make the difference in living an active life. In addition, many people can become temporarily sensitive because of medication, including some antibiotics, antihistamines, oral contraceptives and chemotherapy.

For most people, consistent use of sun screen and good common sense is sufficient sun protection, said Dr. Ivor Caro, head of dermatology at Virginia Mason Medical Center. He stocks his office with Sun Precautions catalogs for the 10 percent or so of his patients who need extra protection.

Many regular fabrics offer adequate sun protection, said Sharon Snider, spokeswoman for FDA.

Unbleached cottons have pigments that absorb ultraviolet rays, and high-luster polyesters and thin satiny silk protect because they reflect radiation, according to a recent Skin Cancer Foundation report. Darker clothes and fabric with a tighter weave, such as denim, also have high sun protection. In contrast, fabrics such as polyester crepe, bleached cotton and viscose are transparent to ultraviolet rays, the report said.

Ozone Aware is a new Australian line of clothing launched this spring to protect against ultraviolet rays. However, Sun Precautions is the only manufacturer that has sought and received an official FDA sun-protection factor (SPF) rating for its clothing - Solumbra tests at SPF 30. That means a person can remain in the sun 30 times longer wearing Solumbra apparel than without any sunscreen. Typical summer clothing, such as a T-shirt, has an SPF 6 or 7, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation report.

For Hughes, this was not a simple business venture: It was a matter of life and lifestyle. At 26 he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma - the most lethal type of skin cancer - on his shoulder. He was treated with surgery and a bone-deep skin graft. But he wanted to resume his active life - golfing, windsurfing, vacationing with his wife in Hawaii. And he didn't want to keep Dracula's hours to do it.

Yet he discovered his clothes were either too bulky or inadequate to protect his shoulders from extended sun exposure. After a few years, he tired of tucking paper towels and shoe-shine cloths under his shirt to shield his shoulders from the very rays he used to seek out and bask in.

So Hughes began working with dermatologists and cloth manufacturers to design clothing lightweight and breathable enough to move comfortably in direct sun. He developed a cotton fiber weave that blocks the part of the sun's spectrum that causes heat, while remaining soft on the skin. Sun Precautions contracts with several Northwest manufacturers to produce the Solumbra line, named for the "umbra," the darkest shadow during the solar eclipse.

The line includes men's and women's trousers and oxford shirts with mesh venting under the arms, chic safari-style sun hats, toddler coveralls and a sleek-fitting water shirt with long sleeves and mesh venting for swimming or snorkeling.

The polo shirt, in bright stripes or solid, feels soft like well-worn cloth, with mesh venting under the arms and knit cuffs to help keep them from rising up the forearm. The sports shirt has mesh venting the full length of the underside of the arms and beneath panels in front and back, and higher collars to shade the nape of the neck.

Prices range from $85 for a jacket, $75 for men's and women's trousers and $70 for a long, full skirt to $60 for a polo shirt and $20 for toddler coveralls.

Hughes wants everyone to know that a person can get skin cancer growing up in the Pacific Northwest. He did. Born and raised in Everett, Hughes spent summers swimming in Lake Stevens, hiking in the Cascades, and sailing and water skiing on the Hood Canal.

"I used to sit on the rocks and put on the baby oil in search of that golden tan you cannot achieve in Seattle," Hughes said.

Despite his cornflower blue eyes and Scottish and Russian ancestry, he wasn't the fairest among his friends, and he wasn't the one who always sunburned. But he was the one who got skin cancer. American Cancer Society statistics show the odds were there:

-- Half of all new cancers are skin cancers.

-- Skin cancer is the most common cancer among people 25 to 29 years old.

-- The incidence of malignant melanoma among white people doubled between 1973 and 1991.

-- An estimated 7,200 people will die of malignant melanoma in 1995 - twice as many men as women - and the death rate is rising.

-- Older white males have the highest mortality rates from skin cancer, partly because they tend not to detect it early enough to successfully treat it.

Hughes was lucky. A woman he was swimming with while in Boston studying for his MBA a dozen years ago spotted a suspicious mole on his back. She insisted he see her dermatologist, who said the mole on his back was ugly, but the one on his shoulder was malignant.

The woman had been treated for melanoma five years earlier. Her cancer returned a year after Hughes was diagnosed. She died a month later.

"I should not be alive," Hughes said. "It's only because of the concern of a friend of mine to go see her dermatologist."

Sun Precautions is based in Everett, but has a showroom at 168 Denny Way in Seattle. Call (800) 882-7860 for information or a catalog.

If you are interested in a free skin cancer screening, one will be offered at the Northshore Senior Center, 487-2441, from 12:45 to 2 p.m. July 11.