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Protecting Your Skin Against the Sun - What You Can Do to Stop Aging & Skin Damage

Our bodies were meant to be outside, soaking up the sun. And as summer approaches, we cannot wait to get our feet wet and our skin tan and warm. Sunlight has been shown to help keep our sleeping patterns on track so we can stay awake by day and sleep soundly at night. Getting too little sun, especially in winter months, can lead to depression, known as seasonal affective disorder.

Light therapy is a healing method for this depression where a sun lamp mimics natural outdoor light which can positively impact serotonin and melatonin. Sunlight also helps our skin make vitamin D, which is necessary for normal bone function and health.


Sunlight travels to Earth via a mixture of both visible and invisible rays or waves. Long waves, like radio waves, are generally harmless to people. However, shorter waves like ultraviolet (UV) light can cause problems. The longest of these UV rays that reach earth are called UVA rays & the shorter ones are called UVB rays.

Both UVA and UVB rays cause types of radiation damage to the skin in different ways. UVB (shortwave) rays are responsible for burnt, red skin, while UVA (longwave) rays can penetrate deeper into the skin and cause DNA damage. When UV rays enter skin cells, they upset delicate processes that affect the skin's growth and appearance.

Consequences of Sun Damage

Sun Burn:

Sun damage has both short and long term consequences. An immediate and visible sign of sun damage is sunburn. In a mild form it appears as red, burnt skin. In more severe cases, it is accompanied by blisters, and nausea and dizziness.

Skin Tone:

Long term consequences of unprotected sun exposure are dry, dull, uneven skin tone. The sun can dry out skin and deplete its levels of essential fatty acids, leaving skin looking and feeling dry, flaky and wrinkled over time. Sun damage slows down the rate of skin cell renewal, causing a build up of old, dead skin cells which results in dull congested skin. It can also cause stubborn pigmentation marks or brown spots.

"The more sun exposure you have, the earlier your skin ages." according to Dr. Barnett S. Kramer, a cancer prevention expert at NIH.

Premature Skin Aging:

Sun damage also can destroy the collagen and elastin in your skin too. Collagen is a protein that retains the firmness of your skin and elastin is the support fibre that allows skin to bounce back. Degradation of collagen and elastin in the deeper skin layers can result in premature signs of skin aging, leading to wrinkles and fine lines, because your skin loses its elasticity and firmness.

Sun Exposure & Skin Cancer

Although the effects of sun damage are mainly cosmetic, it can become a serious threat to your health when it causes skin cancer. Repeated sunburn and unprotected sun exposure increases your chances of various forms of skin cancer. This is why sun protection is so important.

Too much sun exposure can also increase your risk for skin cancer, the most common type of cancer in the United States according to the CDC. When UV light enters skin cells it can harm the genetic material (DNA) inside.

This damage to the DNA can cause changes to cells that make them rapidly grow and divide. This growth can lead to clumps of extra cells creating a tumor or lesion which could be cancerous or harmless.

Initially, skin cancer may first appear as a small spot on the skin. Some cancers reach deep into surrounding tissues. They may also spread from the skin to other organs within the body.

Skin Carcinoma & Melanoma

Annually, more than 2 million people are treated for 2 types of skin cancer: basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers are seen in both older and younger people and are life-threatening.

Melanoma is less common but also a serious type of skin cancer that's diagnosed in more then 68,000 Americans each year. Another 48,000 people are diagnosed with an early form of the disease which involves on the top layer of skin. Melanomas arise from the cells that provide pigment to skin.

An person's risk for melanoma is higher if someone in your family has had skin cancer or if you have already had melanoma or other skin cancers. A major risk factor for melanoma is having a large number of moles or large flat moles with irregular shapes. Sunburns may also increase your risk for melanoma.

Protecting your Skin

The best way to protect yourself and your skin is to limit sun exposure.

• avoid prolonged time in the sun

• choose to be in the shade rather than in direct sunlight

• wear protective clothing & sunglasses

• use sunscreen, especially between 10 am & 4 pm when the

sun is the strongest

The time to start protecting your skin is always now, it is never too late. However, the younger you can the better. According to Kramer, "The time to really start sun protective behavior is not when you reach adulthood, but years before. The message to parents is, now is the time to start protecting your child against skin damage from sun overexposure, when your child is developing sun exposure habits and when they have many more years of potential sun exposure ahead of them." Additionally, other skin protecting habits would be to teach children and teens to avoid using tanning beds.

What SPF Should I Choose?

Sunscreens come labels with sun protection factor (SPF), such as 15, 30 or 50. If a sunscreen is labeled SPF 15, that means it will take you 15 times as long to get a sunburn as it would if you had no sunscreen on, according to Skin Cancer Foundation. A sunscreen labeled SPF 30 means it would take you 30 times as long to get a burn.

How effective sunscreen is depends on several factors. Sunscreens active ingredients can break down over time, so be sure to check the expiration date on the container. The amount of sunscreen you use and how often you use it affects your protection from the sun. When you sweat or if you are in water, you will reduce the sunscreens effectiveness.

The Sun & Vitamin D

People look to the sun as a source of vitamin D and it is, however it takes just a brief time in the sun to get enough of your daily dose of vitamin D.

"You need very little sun exposure - something like 10 to 15 minutes a day to the back of your hands, arms and face - to get enough" says Katz.

Although cloudy days or having dark colored skin can reduce the amount of vitamin D your skin makes, you can get vitamin D from foods or dietary supplements.

Reduce Visible Sun Damage - Skin Care

Even though it is not possible to completely repair sun damage, the right skin care products and daily SPF sunscreen use can bring significant improvement.

Glycloic Acid Exfoliant: exfoliates the skin's surface, helping to fade pigmentation spots and reduce dry skin, your skin will look more even with a healthy glow. In particular, look for an exfoliant with glycolic acid. It helps shed dead skin cells and reveal the newer, brighter layers underneath by acting on the outermost layer of skin. Glycolic acid looses the bonds of tightly packed dead skin cells on the outermost layer so it can be sloughed away. Glycolic acid is also so small so it gets deeper into your skin and stimulates fibroblasts to produce increased amounts of collagen. This minimizes fine lines & wrinkles and helps skin feel firmer.

Retinol: stimulates the natural cell renewal process and reduces wrinkles and skin discolorations. "Retinol can be beneficial for inflammatory conditions such as acne and redness, or for signs of mature skin, like lines and wrinkles," Dr. Neil Sadick, a dermatologist at Sadick Dermatology in New York City states.

Vitamin C: reduces brown spots, helps brighten skin and protects against damage caused by environmental pollution.

Antioxidant Serums: powerful antioxidants in these serums protect skin against environmental damage and boost the efficiency of your SPF.


Sun exposure is healthy in small doses and with adequate protection. It is normal to enjoy the sun, spend the day at the pool, playing on the beach or working in the yard. Make sure to properly protect your skin with proper clothing and SPF sunscreen. Protecting yourself is the best measure you can take to preventing skin cancer and the harmful consequences of sun damage.

What is your experience with sun exposure & skin care? Have you tried anything you can recommend, please comment below.

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