Spring has arrived, and summer days are fast approaching. With the change in seasons comes more sunshine, and longer & warmer days, making skincare all the more important. For tips on how to take care of our largest organ, we caught up with skin expert Dr. Sarah Villafranco of Osmia Organics.
We all want to get outside. It means fresh air, nature, blue skies, animals, and a deeper connection with the earth…
It also means lots of sunshine (ultraviolet rays) on our skin. We need a little sunshine, of course, to keep our Vitamin D levels healthy. But too much exposure over time can leave tracks – increased pigmentation, more wrinkles, decreased skin tone, and increased risk of certain skin cancers over time. So, how can we keep playing outside and protect ourselves from these effects? It’s not as simple as wearing sunscreen, unfortunately, although that’s a critical part of the equation. In this piece, I’ll run through the basics of sun damage, ways to prevent it, and some options for healing skin that’s been overexposed.
What exactly does the sun do to my skin?
Ultraviolet light from the sun comes in three waveforms – UVA, UVB, and UVC. The ozone layer traps almost all UVC and 90-99% of UVB rays, so most of what we’re trying to manage is damage from UVA rays, at least while the ozone layer is somewhat intact. (Google what you can do to help protect the ozone layer – if it disappears, we’re in a heap of trouble.)
While we need a small amount of ultraviolet exposure for healthy Vitamin D production, it’s not much – even a few minutes of sunshine a day on unprotected skin is enough to support healthy bone formation. Beyond that, the rays of the sun do more harm than good: skin cancer is a massive US public health concern, affecting one in five Americans. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common (about 96% of skin cancers), but malignant melanoma (4%) is more lethal due to its virulence and tendency to metastasize to other organs. So, while wrinkles and sunspots are undesirable side effects of sun exposure, the real concern is much more than skin deep.
When the sun hits your skin, it filters through the epidermis (outer layer) to the dermis (deeper layer), and causes trouble by damaging the structure of skin cell DNA and creating free radicals in and around skin cells. Damaged DNA can then transform the cell from a non-cancerous cell to a cancerous one. Cellular damage near the surface of the skin can lead to squamous cell carcinoma, while injured cells in the deeper epidermis can lead to basal cell carcinoma. When melanocytes – cells between the epidermis and the dermis that create pigment in the skin – undergo DNA mutation, they can undergo malignant transformation and become malignant melanomas.
Of less concern, but still unwelcome, are the cosmetic effects of sun damage. When the collagen and elastin in the dermal layer of the skin become compromised by UV light, the tight, bouncy structure of the skin begins to fail. Instead, skin starts to sag and wrinkle, and may develop a rougher texture. UV radiation also causes increased melanin production in the skin which can cause darker pigmentation and sunspots over time.
Have I ruined your fun in the sun yet? Stay with me – it gets better from here!
How can I prevent sun damage?
You have three options: sunscreen, sun protective clothing, and staying out of the sun. I recommend a combination of the three!
Sunscreen is a controversial issue these days, and for good reason. Most conventional sunscreens come in an aerosol can (not ozone-layer friendly), and are packed with parabens, fragrance, phthalates, and multiple ethoxylated ingredients. Not sure why these things are bad for you? Read this.
In addition, there’s some concerning evidence that oxybenzone, a very common chemical sunscreen, may act like estrogen in the body, which increases the likelihood that it will disrupt our innate hormone cycles. Another controversial chemical is retinyl palmitate, which can slow skin aging, but may actually accelerate the development of certain skin cancers when it comes in contact with ultraviolet light. PABA is not used as much as it once was, but there are loads of people who are highly allergic to that common ingredient by now. In short, there are several really good arguments for using a non-toxic, physical sunscreen made with zinc or titanium.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the two physical (or “barrier”) sunblocks used in the natural sunscreen industry. Rather than filtering the rays of the sun and diminishing the harmful effects of UV light (the action of a chemical sunscreen), a physical sunblock sits on top of the skin and reflects the sunlight. It’s like the difference between a filter and a mirror – the filter breaks up the sunlight and deactivates it, and the mirror reflects it instead. The benefits of barrier chemicals include the following: they are not absorbed by the skin; they are not degraded by exposure to sunlight, making them more stable over time; and there are often fewer and less toxic ingredients that make up the “inactive” ingredients in the product.
In short, look for fewer ingredients overall, stick with zinc and titanium (preferably non-nanoparticles, until we know more about the absorption and environmental effects), and look for a product with no parabens and no fragrance.
UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor, and is a standardized way to measure the ability of a piece of material to shield against the sun. For example, if a piece of clothing has a UPF rating of 50, it allows 1/50th of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays to penetrate the skin. It’s actually a more reliable rating system than the SPF system used for sunscreens: SPF testing is done in a lab, where they apply a nice, thick layer of sunscreen, rather than the frantic slap-and-go-and-miss-some-spots routine most of us employ in real life. In addition, UPF testing is done under the most intense conditions, where the fabric is perpendicular to the penetrating UV rays, which is not always the case when we’re wearing and playing in the clothing outdoors. Real-life use of UPF rated clothing likely results in a higher degree of sun protection than the UPF rating would indicate, so you can rest assured that if you see UPF 50, it’s filtering out at least 98% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Fortunately, UPF clothing is making strides in the style department. Want proof? Check out these pics of me and my girls in Costa Rica!
Okay, not total abstinence, but avoiding the sun between the hours of 10 and 3 is a great tool for decreasing your exposure to harmful UV rays. When the sun is more perpendicular to the surface of the earth, it’s closer to your skin, and causes more damage. So, if you can do your runs and rides in the morning or late afternoon, you’re off to a great start in preventing trouble down the road.
What if I get a sunburn?
If you have blistering the day of the burn, you have a second degree burn, and should be on high alert for dehydration and infection – two of the most common complications of serious sunburn. (If either occurs, you should seek medical attention.) For more typical sunburns, though, cool compresses and ibuprofen are your best friends. Keep yourself hydrated, and avoid hot showers! A lotion or body oil with pure lavender essential oil can help relieve pain and inflammation as the skin heals itself, but avoid synthetic fragrance or unnecessary chemicals while the skin is compromised. Try using a body oil on sopping wet skin to seal in extra moisture during this time – sunburned skin is not as effective at retaining moisture, so you’ll want to give it a little extra love.
What can I do to reverse photoaging?
There are a few roads you can travel to treat sun-damaged skin, from minimally invasive to more aggressive treatment. There are topical treatments like retinoids, and there are procedures in the dermatologist’s office, ranging from LED therapy to laser treatments. Many women choose a combination of the two.
Retinoids, in one form or another, have been shown to decrease evidence of sun damage over time. There are downsides, from toxicity to side effects, and you’ll have to find the level of treatment that’s right for you and your skin – here’s a review on the subject, in case you want to assess the pros and cons.
If you’re leaning toward more natural products for photoaging, look for products rich in Vitamin A and carotenoid-containing ingredients, like rosehip seed, sea buckthorn, argan, broccoli seed, and pumpkin. You can look for skin-lightening ingredients such as Fuller’s Earth, licorice root, kojic acid, or vitamin B3. And you can support your skin from the inside by eating a plant-rich diet with plenty of water and healthy fats!
Got a sunspot that’s making you crazy? You’ll probably need to go the medical route and have it treated with a chemical peel, microdermabrasion, or laser therapy. They penetrate more deeply and achieve results faster than the topical routes. You may need to hide from the sun for a bit after some of the treatments, but if you’ve got the right sunscreen and UPF hat on, you’ll be all set!