Banning The Rays

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Once or sometimes twice a month, Shaun Hughes travels from his office to a Seattle light-treatment laboratory for a bizarre ritual. He subjects himself to potentially dangerous amounts of ultraviolet rays. Before blasting 31 doses of radiation, lab technicians place on his back a quilt made of 30-odd fabric samples. Twenty-four hours later, Hughes goes back for evaluation. It is a strange routine, since Hughes is a skin-cancer survivor. "I'm a guinea pig," he says.

Hughes isn't a masochist — that is his homegrown quality-control system. In 1990 he helped pioneer in the U.S. the development of garments that protect skin from the sun, and his company, Sun Precautions, is now one of the world's leading manufacturers of sun-protective clothing. Hughes goes under the sun lamps because he feels a sense of duty toward his customers. "It's important from an ethical consideration. I don't want anybody to buy a product that doesn't work," he says. "I believe management should be on the front lines and not in some back room."

It all dates back to Hughes' brush with skin cancer in 1983. He was studying for his M.B.A. at Harvard when a doctor discovered a malignant melanoma on his shoulder. Hughes underwent surgery and has been cancer-free since. He moved on to a high-powered Wall Street career at Citicorp, where he worked on the $105 million leveraged buyout of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain and the $200 million acquisition of Prince Sports Group from Unilever. Seven years after his health scare, Hughes got the entrepreneurial itch. He decided to go out on his own — and help people in the process.

From personal experience, Hughes figured there was a niche market. Neither sunscreen nor layers of clothing were enough to protect his sensitive skin when he was just walking down the street or skiing on the slopes. He set out to find a solution. Hughes left his position as a principal in the Northern Group, a boutique Seattle firm, and plowed nearly all his personal savings — several million dollars — into coming up with a better alternative. For two years he traveled, meeting with experts in the fields of skin cancer, dermatology and textiles in the U.S., Canada and Australia. Finally, he developed a technology that involved a combination of specially woven fibers, UV-absorbing chemicals and a manufacturing process that maintains durability. Result: Solumbra, a material that is tightly woven, lightweight, cottony-soft and nylon-based. A sun-protection factor of 30 is built into the fabric, which, even when wet, blocks out 97% of the sun's harmful UVA and UVB rays. According to Hughes, the fabric remains effective after 100 laundry cycles and 100 full days of sun exposure.

Sun Precautions, based in Everett, Wash.--which produces Solumbra sportswear for men, women and children — is targeting a growing market. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., and awareness is spreading. The American Cancer Society says that each year more than 1 million new non-melanoma skin-cancer cases are reported, almost 55,000 new melanomas are diagnosed and nearly 10,000 patients die of skin cancer. The numbers are alarming, but care and diligent sun protection can dramatically reduce the risk.

Hughes grew the business through direct marketing — sending his clothing catalogs straight to the medical community. Dr. Christopher Harmon, a Birmingham, Ala., dermatologist, keeps the catalog in his waiting room and often refers patients to the company. "They've been innovative," he says, and points out that the condition of one patient, a golfer with a history of skin cancer who has been wearing Solumbra for about a year, has improved. "I haven't had to remove as many precancerous [cells] from his face and arms," Harmon notes. Not everyone is convinced. Says Dr. Richard Kaplan, a clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA: "You'd have to be dressed like a ghost to cover every surface of the body." Instead of buying pricey duds with UV protection, he says, "what people with fair skin should do is stay in the shade." The clothing, which brings in estimated sales of up to $25 million a year, is sold through the company's website, through a mail-order catalog that reaches 2 million customers and in retail stores in Seattle, San Diego, Los Angeles and Honolulu.

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