Sun protection equals skin damage prevention
Our knowledge about the damaging effects of the sun is nothing new, but it still surprises me that some people haven’t gotten the message. Talking to patients about sun protection has taught me that most either underestimate the damaging effects that UV rays have on the skin, aren’t willing to change their behavior, or are reluctant to take the extra step and apply sunscreen. As a dermatologist, this is especially disappointing to me because sun damage is largely preventable.
Sun damage is a continuum, and early signs can be seen as early as one’s twenties. The symptoms—such as wrinkles, brown spots, rough texture, visible blood vessels and changes in color—begin to progress slowly as we age, eventually culminating in precancerous lesions and in some cases skin cancer.
When the signs of sun damage become visible depends largely on the color of your skin and hair. If you’re fair and have blonde or red hair, odds are you’ll see your first wrinkles in your twenties. Those with darker complexions see sun damage later, since the pigment in darker skin plays a bit of a sun protective role. But this doesn’t mean those with darker skin can be lax about sun protection—you’ll still get some damage, but it just may appear later.
All sun damage is caused by UV radiation, and our exposure begins in childhood. Over time, UV rays cause changes deep within the skin. First, accumulated sun exposure damages our collagen. Healthy collagen is white and creamy, but damaged collagen becomes brittle and yellow, which lends a sallow cast to the skin. The sun also prompts the pigment-producing cells within our skin to go haywire, so they either begin to produce too much pigment (which leads to brown spots) or stop producing pigment altogether which creates white spots. Long-term sun exposure also causes the skin to develop more blood vessels as a response to an injury. This is the skin’s attempt to get more nutrients to the skin in order to help it heal, but it leaves you with visible capillaries on the cheeks and nose, which in severe cases can manifest as rosacea. In addition, sun damage can cause enlarged pores as well as rough, dry skin texture not only on the face, but on the chest, arms and legs as well.
Wrinkles are often the main beauty concern as we age, and we can attribute their appearance to the sun. When UV rays injure cells within the skin, the cells start producing enzymes that breakdown the collagen and elastin that are responsible for smooth, young-looking skin. As collagen and elastin degrade, skin laxity, loss of elasticity and wrinkles set in.
As I said, sun damage is mostly preventable, and in most cases, applying SPF 30 to the face, neck, chest, hands and any exposed area every morning can keep damage at bay. (Men need to pay attention to their ears as well.) On those days when you’ll be out in the sun for an extended period of time, you need to reapply sunscreen often, especially after swimming or sweating. Look for ingredients that block UVA and UVB rays—mainly zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone or ecamsule—and make sure you are generous when applying. Most people don’t use enough sunscreen, so the protection comes nowhere close to the SPF stated on the bottle. And don’t just rely on your sunscreen. Sun protective clothing, sunglasses and hats provide extra protection.
It’s never too late to stop the sun damage process, and fortunately we have many tools that can help reverse the signs. Just keep in mind that it takes a long time for sun damage to develop, and it can take time to restore the skin as well. Getting on a good skin care regimen and using sunscreen can make a difference on its own. Adding an antioxidant product in the morning helps intercept the free radicals that cause skin damage, and using a retinoid at night to regulate cell turnover and boost collagen production helps even more. From there, lasers, radiofrequency and focused ultrasound treatments can help firm and tighten damaged skin, eliminate blood vessels and lighten brown spots. Botulinum toxins and fillers can also be used to relax wrinkles and fill in furrows.
When sun damage leads to skin cancer, it’s a health issue rather than a beauty concern. The easiest and most important thing you can do is be familiar with your own skin. If you notice any change in the size or color of a mole or notice itching or bleeding, it’s imperative to see your dermatologist. And in addition to monitoring your own skin, schedule a yearly body check so your dermatologist can track anything suspicious. If skin cancer is caught at an early stage, there’s a high cure rate.
I rely on quite a few SkinMedica products to help my patients reverse signs of sun damage. TNS Essential Serum® helps boost collagen production and fade uneven pigment, and it contains antioxidants to help shield skin from damage. The Redness Relief CalmPlex™ reduces the appearance of red capillaries, and, of course, the Environmental Defense Sunscreen™ SPF 30+ and 50+ are extremely effective at protecting the skin.