Category Archives: indoor tanning

Down and Hot in Paris and London (with apologies to George Orwell)

This post is something of a departure from my earlier ones. It’s the record of a family trip to Paris, London, and elsewhere in France and the U.K. during the summer of 1995. My family that summer included my husband Herb; our two college-aged daughters, Meredith and Leslie; and me. Our home was in a suburb of Chicago.

I originally drafted this piece in 1995, shortly after we returned from our trip. I focused on how we survived the intense heat we’d encountered. Now, nearly 20 years later, the cities we visited may respond to hot weather differently than they did back then. But my post may nevertheless serve as a cautionary tale for anyone traveling anywhere during hot weather, even today.

Please don’t conclude that this trip was a disaster. It wasn’t! Even though we continually confronted the challenges of hot-weather travel, we nevertheless had a marvelous time. We laughed through all of our travails and mishaps, and they quickly became family legends that we’ve treasured ever since.

Because of its overall length, I’ve divided it into four separate posts, beginning with Part I.

PART I

In a sweltering summer when temperatures in Chicago soared to record-breaking highs, we took off for Paris and London. When Herb and I made our travel plans, it seemed like a great idea. For one thing, Northern Europe almost never had the high summer temperatures we usually had in Chicago. Besides, our older daughter, Meredith, was spending the summer doing research in Paris. What better excuse for the rest of us to fly there, meet up with her, then travel together in France and the U.K.?

In May, we booked our airline tickets, planning to depart for Paris in mid-July. By June, I began to get glimmers that all was not well. Meredith was reporting unusually hot weather in Paris, and media dispatches from Wimbledon noted London temperatures in the 90s.

It can’t last, I thought. This is freakish weather for Paris and London, and by the time we get there, things will have cooled off.

But by the time we got there, it was just as hot.

Younger daughter Leslie, Herb, and I arrived in Paris early Friday morning and headed for the taxi stand at Orly Airport. The air was shimmering with heat–at 8 a.m.–and we were grateful to grab a taxi with air-conditioning. We arrived at our modest hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens and found our chambre, a good-sized room with one double bed and two twins. Heavy curtains on the French windows were fending off the sun, but when we opened them to see our view, the sun hit the room, and the already-high temperature shot up even more. We rushed to close the curtains. Then, exhausted from our trip, we collapsed on our sagging mattresses.

Meredith met up with us later that morning, and we all set out for the Luxembourg Gardens, where we found chairs in a shady spot and pondered how to spend the rest of the day. A museum would surely be cool; protecting all that priceless artwork required air-conditioning. We couldn’t face the cavernous Louvre, so we headed for the Musée d’Orsay.

Hot and sleep-deprived, we dragged ourselves up the Boulevard St-Michel to the Metro, and took a sizzling subway car to the museum. Surprise! Once inside, having paid a hefty entrance fee, we were shocked to find the air-conditioning barely functioning. Weren’t Parisians worried about all those precious Monets, Manets, and Van Goghs?

We forced ourselves to look at a few galleries but eventually collapsed in some comfy wicker chairs, where we dozed off for the next half-hour. Other museum-goers stared, but we were too hot and sleepy to care. We finally made our way to the museum café, where we ate a light lunch and consumed a large quantity of liquid refreshment.

After searching for an air-conditioned restaurant near our hotel–and finding none–we dined outside on the Rue Soufflot and headed for bed, only to discover another problem: mosquitoes! Our beautiful French windows had no screens, and if we opened the windows with the lights on, mosquitoes attacked us from every direction. We decided to leave the windows closed till it was time to turn out the lights.

Once we turned off the lights and opened the windows, a delicious breeze entered the room, cooling us off for the night. But the mosquitoes still targeted us, even in the dark, and traffic noise kept us from having a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, we awoke to a rainy Paris sky. In my lifetime of traveling, I’d never before been so happy to see rain! The gray sky meant lower temperatures, and we happily set out for another museum (the Musée d’Art Moderne, then featuring an impressive exhibit of Chagall paintings) without the threat of soaring temperatures and a merciless sun.

But as the day progressed, things got a lot steamier, and we decided to leave Paris a day earlier than planned. We would pick up our rental car and head for Rouen one day sooner. After dinner on the Rue du Pot de Fer, a pedestrian street a few steps from the busy Rue Mouffetard, we walked back to our hotel, prepared to be unwilling mosquito-targets one more night.

By now, we were all covered with bites, and the torment of itching had begun. Applying hydrocortisone cream helped, but not nearly enough. Meredith bought a more powerful French ointment formulated to ease insect bites, so we tried that, too. But those Parisian bugs were potent, and we proceeded to scratch their bites for days. (The bites on our feet created a special torment. Encased in heavy-duty athletic shoes–the better to walk in, my dear–our feet were not only piping-hot but also covered with bites that never stopped itching!)

The next morning dawned sunny but cooler. Miraculous! Did we really want to leave Paris a day early? Taking advantage of the cooler air, we set out on foot for the Marais, by way of the bouquinistes along the Seine, the Ile de la Cité, and the Ile St-Louis. By the time we arrived at the Rue des Rosiers, where we consumed kosher panini, the sun had become more intense, and the air was growing hot.

At the Musée Carnavalet, the displays of Parisian history and culture were fascinating, but the increasing heat and the enormous collection finally wore us down. Drained of energy, we spent the next hour sitting in the shade, zombie-like, in a small park just outside the museum.

Later, we walked to the Place des Vosges, where we sat for a while once again in the shade. The search for shade had become a rallying cry that resounded throughout the trip. “Shade!” I would shout, and the rest of our little group would hurry after me to reach the nearest patch of shade.

After another excellent dinner on the Rue du Pot de Fer, enjoying the sensory delights of a delicious breeze, I wondered whether we were right to leave Paris one day early. But the next morning, the sun was blazing with a vengeance, and all of us were grateful to pile into our rented Peugeot and head north to Normandy, where cooler temperatures awaited–or so we hoped!

It’s Gonna Be a Bright, Bright, Bright, Sunshiny Day

Summer has arrived, and with it, lots and lots of sunshine. Americans love sunshine and flock to it whenever we can.
But sunshine isn’t an unmitigated benefit. Dangers lurk in those rays. Most of us know by now that harmful UV (ultraviolet) light can be toxic, and we use sunscreen (more or less religiously) to deter the most harmful effects. The CDC (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun and wearing sunscreen with a minimum of 15 SPF.
So what else is new? Well, a raft of recent studies has in fact produced some brand-new information about sunshine.
First, researchers at Harvard have turned up startling evidence that may explain why some people don’t restrict their time in the sun even though they’re aware of the dangers. It seems that basking in those UV rays can be addictive. According to a new study from Harvard Medical School, investigators at Mass General Hospital have found that chronic UV exposure raises “circulating levels of beta-endorphin” in mice, and that mice who become accustomed to those levels exhibit “withdrawal symptoms” when the beta-endorphin activity is blocked.
What is beta-endorphin? Most of us have heard of endorphins, powerful neurotransmitters that originate in the human body, controlling emotions and often blocking pain. A “beta-endorphin” is one kind of endorphin, considered to be not only stronger than morphine as a pain-blocker but also producing feelings of pleasure. Beta-endorphin is much like an opioid, a/k/a an opiate, a drug used by the medical profession to treat pain. Opioids/opiates impact the brain, leading to feelings of intense pleasure, and addiction—both physical and mental—can develop very quickly.
According to lead researcher David E. Fisher, the Wigglesworth Professor and Chair of Dermatology at HMS and Mass General, the Harvard study found that UV radiation produced “opiate-like effects, including addictive behavior.” The study, reported in the June 19 issue of Cell, may explain what Fisher calls “the ‘sun-seeking’ behavior that may underlie the relentless rise in most forms of skin cancer.”
The study uncovered mounting evidence of addictive behavior among humans as well as mice. Several studies have noted addiction-like behavior in people using indoor tanning facilities. Other studies found that an “opioid blocker” produced withdrawal-like symptoms in these frequent tanners.
Let’s look at what the Harvard researchers did. For six weeks, they delivered a daily dose of UV light—equal to the exposure of fair-skinned humans to 20 or 30 minutes of midday Florida sun—on the shaved backs of a group of mice. Within a week, levels of beta-endorphin in their blood rose significantly. The levels remained elevated during the study period, gradually returning to normal only after UV exposure ended. When the researchers administered naloxone, an “opioid blocker” known to block opioid-pathway activity, the mice had such classic symptoms of opioid withdrawal as trembling, shaking, and teeth-chattering.
Fisher concluded that humans might react the same way, noting that “a natural mechanism reinforcing UV-seeking behavior may have developed during mammalian evolution.” Why? Probably because we synthesize vitamin D (increasingly viewed as an essential nutrient) from the UV light in sunshine. Low blood levels of vitamin D can lead to a host of ailments. But sun-seeking behavior, Fisher warned, carries with it “the carcinogenic risk of UV light.” Other sources of vitamin D, like cheap oral supplements, more safely and accurately maintain healthy vitamin D levels.
Fisher concluded that because persistent UV- seeking appears to be addictive, reducing skin-cancer risks may require “actively confronting” hazardous behavior like indoor tanning. Although both the CDC and the FDA have indicted indoor tanning as highly dangerous, Fisher fears the “passive risk-messages” we’re using aren’t good enough. In other words, we need to use much scarier warnings to let addicted sun-lovers know how destructive their behavior is.
At the same time, there’s new information that not enough sun exposure can also be risky. The July issue of the Journal of Internal Medicine reported on a study conducted in Sweden suggesting that the CDC guidelines may be too restrictive in regions with limited sunshine. The Swedes tracked sun exposure in 30,000 light-skinned Swedish women ages 25 to 64 from 1990 to 1992, gathering a wealth of information, including time spent sunbathing and the use of tanning beds. When national statistics were later reviewed in 2011, it appeared that women who got the most sun had the greatest risk of developing skin cancer. No big surprise there. But it was surprising that women who avoided the sun were twice as likely to die from any cause, including skin cancer. The risk of dying from all causes was twice as great among the sun-avoiders and 40 percent higher in those with moderate sun exposure. The study didn’t include information on blood levels of vitamin D or the use of vitamin D supplements, but its results may actually support the Harvard conclusions. If exposure to sunshine leads to better health overall, maybe that’s because sunshine leads to higher vitamin D levels. If so, our focus should probably shift to ensuring that everyone gets enough vitamin D, regardless of sun exposure.
Finally, if you’re a confirmed sun-lover, you might want to know about another study, this one conducted at Northwestern Medical School. Researchers found that people who are exposed to even moderately bright morning light have a significantly lower body mass index (BMI, based on height and weight) than those who had their first exposure later in the day. According to lead author Kathryn Reid, the earlier the light exposure, the lower one’s BMI. Senior author Phyllis Zee, director of the school’s Sleep and Circadian Rhythms Research Program, noted that light is the “most potent agent to synchronize your internal body clock,” regulating circadian rhythms, which in turn “regulate energy balance.” In short, if you want to lower your BMI, you might want to get outside between 8 a.m. and noon (20 to 30 minutes should do it).
Summing up, “I can see clearly now….”
For people like me (a redhead with extremely light skin), the less sun exposure the better. Although I love being outside on a sunny day, I use lots of sunscreen and stay in the shade as much I can. I make up the vitamin D deficit by taking an inexpensive supplement every morning.
For everyone else, the studies pretty much reinforce what we already knew. They suggest keeping your sun exposure within bounds. Some time in the sun is fine, so long as you use some sunscreen. Avoid overdoing your exposure via indoor tanning, and otherwise avoid addictive sun-seeking behavior. But one way or another, don’t forget to get some vitamin D.