Sunscreen is most often associated with the summer months, as the warm weather is pleasurable and more time is spent hanging out by swimming pools, relaxing on beaches, and partaking in outdoor activities. Most people who have felt the uncomfortable burn that accompanies sun damage or the rubbery, wrinkled, peeling skin that often follows, will appreciate the power of sunscreen in protecting the skin. For those who have not experienced drastic skin damage from the sun, there are also subtle changes that gradually occur over time that cause the skin to age prematurely.
As fall approaches, many sunscreen lotions are tossed away or end up in the back of the closet only to be rediscovered next summer. Before you do this, take a look at the ways in which you can protect your skin year round and decide which sun protection may work best for your skin.
Benefits of the Sun
I like to start on a positive note, so rather than diving right into the deep end of the potential menaces of the sun, let’s take a moment to recognize all the benefits and beauty it has to offer – even for our skin. A study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives emphasizes the benefit of sunlight in boosting the supply of vitamin D in the body. Vitamin D is unique compared to most other vitamins in that it does not need to be ingested as food (commonly marketed in milk) in order to reap its benefits. Instead, vitamin D synthesis is triggered by UVB radiation that enters our body through the skin and in turn causes a photosynthetic reaction in the body. We rely on vitamin D for proper bone formation, so it is especially important for those developing.
Dr. Normal Rosenthal at Georgetown University coined the term Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as the winter blues. In most cases, individuals tend to experience symptoms of low energy and sluggishness, to name a few, during the months with less sunshine. In addition to seeking therapy from a psychologist, one of the treatment suggestions for SAD includes light therapy. The natural sunlight has been shown to help elevate moods and lead to feelings of rejuvenation.
Moderate sun exposure, therefore, is important. You don’t have to hide from the sun, but it’s important to be cautious and educated on its effects.
The Difference Between Sunburn and Suntan
While some people can spend an entire day on the beach and end up with glowing skin, others may spend 30-minutes outdoors eating lunch and return inside with bright red, swollen, burned skin.
The reason is primarily attributed to melanin, which contributes to the pigmentation if the skin, giving it it’s color. Although all people can be affected by the sun and UV rays, the American Cancer Society has noted that some people tan as the skin absorbs UV rays while others burn. People with naturally darker skin have more melanin and are less likely to get burned by the sun because melanin can help block out damaging UV rays. The reason why our skin color tends to change as we spend more time in the sun is because as your skin gets damaged by the rays of the sun, it makes more melanin to try to protect the skin from even more damage.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) simplifies it by saying that in most, but not all, cases, individuals with darker skin tend to turn darker brown or tan while in the sun, while individuals with lighter skin tend to turn more red or burn while in the sun. The risk of skin cancer increases with sunburns, but that does not mean that those who do not burn are not also at risk. UV exposure alone can increase the risk of skin cancer, as well as the following included on the list here.
Skin Damage from the Sun
UV rays from the sun penetrate the skin’s epidermal (outer) layer before entering the skin’s deeper layers. There are two type of UV rays, referred to as UVA and UVB, that affect the skin differently. UVA rays travel deeply into the skin while UVB rays are the more likely cause of sunburn. Over time, both rays can affect the appearance of the skin. Although for some, skin peeling may occur after sun damage and the skin may appear normal, skin repair becomes more difficult as an individual ages. Changes in the skin listed by the AAD include wrinkles, age spots, loose skin, spider veins, and a blotchy complexion. Even those who use tanning beds will not avoid the skin damaging effects of UV rays and may notice changes much sooner.
Skin cancer occurs primarily due the DNA damage caused by the UV rays, according to the National Institute of Health. The damage caused to DNA may lead to rapid growth and division of cells that in turn can be cancerous. If you are at risk for skin cancer or notice an unfamiliar spot, it is important to visit a dermatologist for a skin check for an early diagnosis.
Just as with the food we put in our bodies, the products we put on our skin are also capable of entering our system. When selecting skincare, consider the ingredients to make an informed choice of the products that will work best for you. When it comes to sunscreens, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed that two ingredients are “generally recognized as safe and effective” (GRASE): titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
Zinc oxide is a physical blocker which means that is acts almost like a mirror, reflecting sunlight off the skin’s surface. Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are considered the safer option when it comes to sunscreen because they can block UVA and UVB rays without penetrating the skin. Many people, especially those conscious of “non-toxic” ingredients, prefer sunscreen options with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide because of its protection against the sun, compatibility with a majority of skin types (including sensitive skin), and in the words of AAD, works like a shield!
Of all the positive things that accompany these ingredients, the downside is that many sunscreens containing zinc oxide give off the white, ashy appearance, especially as the SPF increases. Going to your local Sephora, Ulta, or drug store may let you try on a few options to see which works best with your skin and will leave the least white cast. My tip: rub it in! Some may appear more ghost-like at first, but just need a little rubbing to become more translucent.
Chemical sunscreens work differently than physical sunscreens and contain active ingredients such as oxybenzone, avobezone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. If you’ve tried these, you’ve probably recognized the ease at which it rubs into your skin without leaving much of a residue. The ingredients in chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays and converting the rays to heat that is then emitted from the skin. More recently, many have raised a concern of the ingredients found in chemical sunscreens following some evidence that it may disrupt hormone levels, but keep in mind that it does not indicate that it is a toxic substance. According to a very recent article published by the AAD, there is the potential that the ingredients found in chemical sunscreens may be absorbed into the bloodstream, but more information is needed before concluding that these ingredients have an effect on an individual’s health.
With that said, using the information gathered, you can approach your skin care and sun protection with some knowledge of the ingredients that may work best for you.