After this year’s tough winter, all of us at my Indiana plastic surgery practice are delighted to see and feel the signs of spring, knowing that summer isn’t far behind! For most of us, summer brings lots of outdoor activities like swimming, picnicking, camping, working in the garden and going to the park with the kids. While these activities feed the soul they, unfortunately, also feed sun damage, as the sun’s UV rays attack our skin.
How the Sun Damages Skin
As we age, both collagen and elastin, the building blocks of youthful skin, begin to diminish, causing our skin to lose resiliency and, ultimately, to stretch and sag. Older skin bruises and tears more easily as well, and takes longer to heal. Sun damage accelerates skin aging because the ultraviolet (UV) light damages the elastin and collagen fibers. In our youth, other than the occasional sunburn, with its discomfort and peeling, we recover rather quickly from this damage but it’s there, and will show up–sooner rather than later–in various skin disorders, aging being the least of them.
Skin Problems Caused by Sun Exposure
- Premature aging, such as skin dryness, wrinkling, thickening, and an increase in freckles
- A sallow, yellow-orange cast to the skin
- Mottled pigmentation: discolored patches or areas of the skin
- Spider veins, particularly on the face
- Benign, pre-cancerous lesions called actinic keratosis
- Skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell or melanoma, due to damage of the skin’s immune function
UVA vs UVB Rays
There are two types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA and UVB. Here’s the difference:
- UVA rays cause Aging: wrinkles and thick, tough skin.
- UVB rays cause Burning, such as sunburn.
UVA rays cause aging because they penetrate deeply into the dermis, the thickest layer of your skin. Repeated exposure to UVA rays not only leads to premature aging but to immune system depression. When the immune system is depressed, you’re at a greater risk for skin cancer because your defenses are down.
UVB rays burn the top layers of the skin, particularly during the hours of 10 AM to 4 PM when the sun is at its peak. And it’s best to remember that, although a sunburn goes away in a few days, it can result in permanent damage with repeated burns.
How Sunscreens Work
Depending upon the type of sunscreen product, the protection from the sun’s rays can be (A) physical or (B) chemical. Physical sunscreens block the light, such as zinc oxide or titanium oxide. Here is a link to a variety of physical sunscreen products. Chemical sunscreens absorb the light. Here is a link to a variety of chemical sunscreen products approved by the American Academy of Dermatology. If you choose to use chemical sunscreen, look for those that provide broad-spectrum UV coverage, which includes both UVA and UVB rays. An SPF of 15 is generally the minimum sunblock recommended. There is little difference in your protection between 35 and 50 SPF and even less between 50 and 100 SPF.
How to Safely Enjoy the Sun
Exposure to UV rays are inevitable. Even a walk to the mailbox, hopping in and out of the car while shopping, driving during the daylight or exposure to certain lights at the office can cause sun damage. Here are some ideas to maximize your protection:
- Avoid gardening, tennis, golf and sunbathing between 10 AM and 4 PM
- Absolutely avoid tanning beds and booths
- Use either physical sunscreen or broad spectrum UVA and UVB chemical sunscreen every time you go outside
- Apply a quarter-sized dollop of sunscreen to each area of the body: each arm, each thigh, each lower leg, etc.
- Reapply every 2 hours or when wet from water or sweat
- Wear a hat to protect your tender facial skin
- If you burn easily, check out sun-protective clothing locally or through these online stores.
- If you’re out on a rainy day, wear sunscreen, as the rays penetrate clouds and rain.
I hope these suggestions get you through the coming months with a minimum of–or better yet, no–sun damage. Your skin needs protection both to ensure minimal signs of aging and to avoid skin cancer.
To your health & beauty,
Gus Galante, MD, FACS
Board Certified Indiana Plastic Surgeon