By Peter Castro
October 14, 1996 12:00 PM

EVERY THREE MONTHS, SHAUN Hughes travels 20 miles from his office in Everett, Wash., to a Seattle testing lab. There he strips to the waist and for seven minutes, protected by a patch of fabric stretched over a sunlamp, stands in front of the cancer-causing ultraviolet rays aimed at his shoulder, where a malignant melanoma was removed 13 years ago. But Hughes is no wacko with a death wish; he’s simply a guy standing behind his product.

“If I didn’t do the testing, who would?” asks the 39-year-old founder, president and chief executive guinea pig of Sun Precautions Inc., which manufactures a sunproof casual wear line that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993. According to the FDA, Hughes’s fabric provides a sun-protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. (By comparison, the average cotton T-shirt has an SPF of 6 to 9.) Like the swatch covering the sunlamp, Hughes’s line of hats, pants, shirts and swimwear is made of Sol-umbra, a patented fabric that Hughes invented. “No patch ever failed,” he says. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t sell it.”

And the producers of Baywatch wouldn’t buy it. “Our cast and crew are in the sun all day long, so Sun Precautions was something that really made sense,” says costume designer Karen J. Braverman, who will use some of Hughes’s designs in upcoming shows. “It does more than prevent sunburns,” adds Braverman, who, like Sun Precautions’ other customers, orders the items (prices range from $23 for a child’s hat to $95 for an adult jacket) via mail-order catalog. “It also provides protection against unwanted tan lines.”

Frustration was the source of Hughes’s inspiration. The son of a Seattle furniture salesman and a homemaker, he spent summers at the beach. “My whole childhood involved the sun,” he recalls. “I’d put on the cocoa butter and oil and bake.” A 1979 graduate of Claremont McKenna College, where he majored in economics, Hughes was 26 in 1983, when a friend noticed a mole on his back. She herself had been diagnosed with a melanoma a few months earlier and implored Hughes to get it examined. Though the doctor found nothing wrong with the mole, another spot on Hughes’s shoulder turned out to be an early-stage melanoma. “I’m very lucky,” says Hughes, who lives in Everett with his wife, Lori, 34, a Sun Precautions manager, who is six months pregnant with their first child. “I could be dead if my friend hadn’t insisted I go for a checkup. The sad part is that the same woman that saved me eventually died from a melanoma.” (According to the American Cancer Society, 800,000 Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year, 38,300 of them with melanomas—66 percent more than a decade ago.)

Three years after his scare, Hughes graduated with an MBA from UCLA and returned to Seattle, where he worked as an investment banker. Though he remained healthy, he was terrified of a recurrence. He stayed out of the sun, constantly applied sunscreen and lived in long-sleeved shirts. “I wouldn’t go windsurfing or water-skiing,” he says. “I wouldn’t go to Hawaii. When people would sit out on a deck, I’d always be the guy who had to pull his chair over to the shade.” Still, on hot days even those precautions weren’t enough. “I found that I’d still be sunburned through normal clothing,” he says. “After years of wearing paper towels and greasy sunblock under my shirts, I knew there had to be a better way.”

Determined to find it, Hughes quit his job in 1990 and, investing $100,000 of his savings, traveled around the country attending conferences and interviewing scientists about developing the safe clothing he envisioned. Eighteen months later he had perfected Solumbra (partly named for the shadow thrown by a solar eclipse), a densely woven, lightweight nylon that is virtually impervious to ultraviolet rays.

These days—though Sun Precautions boasts a staff of 20, customers from as far away as Europe and Africa and the motto “It’s always sunny somewhere”—it is the freedom his creations allow his customers, and him, that Hughes appreciates most. “Unless you’ve had cancer,” he says, “it’s hard to explain how the experience haunts you. Our clothing gives sun-sensitive people peace of mind. They can have fun in the sun again.”