What happens in the skin when it is exposed to sunlight?
There are two types of UV light: ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). UVA impacts skin aging, while UVB causes sunburn. When exposed to sunlight, melanin is produced by the melanocytes to protect the skin, causing the skin to darken. When this happens, you have a tan.
Melanin is one of the fundamental defense mechanisms of our whole body; it is there for reason. It protects the skin from UV radiation, and is therefore crucial for our existence. Melanin also produces vitamin D, which is important for calcium absorption – healthy bones, although supplement is often recommended. People with light skin have less melanin, therefore burn easier.
How does the sun affect our skin?
Unfortunately there is no such thing as a safe tan. UV radiation always causes an inflammatory reaction – a sunburn. Weather the UV light burns or tans you, it always damages skin cells in ways that accelerate skin-ageing by damaging collagen fibers and destroying vitamin A. Exposure to the sun also increase the risks of developing skin cancer.
From an aesthetic point of view sun damage such as hyperpigmentation, sun keratosis, dry skin, and fine lines and wrinkles are the most common results of exposing the skin to UV light. Most affected areas are the forehead, décolletage and hands. There are however some skin conditions, such as psoriasis, that benefit from controlled and short term exposure to sunlight, but here it is paramount to consult your dermatologist.
How do you best protect your skin when outside?
Avoid direct sunlight between 10 am and 4 pm, by staying in the shade. Wear sunscreen! Wear clothing and a hat to protect your skin from direct UV rays. This is especially important for infants and small children. Wear sunglasses. Keep in mind that some medications and topical skincare products can make your skin sensitive to the sun – consult your skin-therapist or dermatologist about these and about treatments that are suitable for skin that is exposed to sunrays.
What type of sun protection should you use?
Chemical sunscreens, e.g. oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone, create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin. Physical sunscreen, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, sits on top of the skin to deflect and block the damaging UV rays. Both types of protection are safe when applied correctly. It is suggested to use a minimum of SPF 30.
There is abundant discussion about the risks of using sunscreens. It is good to remember no sunscreen is perfect and even if there was one, the chances of it being applied consistently and correctly are low; correct application is key for sunscreen to work. Furthermore, research indicates that one additional reason people do burn while using sunscreen is much too long sun exposure. When reducing sun exposure is not an option for you, the best way of finding out which kind of protection is the best for your skin and your needs, is simply trying out different options, and checking for any reactions.
At present there is not enough research data to provide a definitive answer to whether it is safer to use physical sun filters compared to chemical ones or vice versa. There is controversy surrounding nano-sized physical filters; nano-particle physical filters improve the feel of physical sunscreens and are more translucent, but research has shown that they are harmful to aquatic life and they might be hazardous to humans if inhaled. Nano titanium dioxide is currently being studies as a possible lung carcinogen.
From an environmental point of view, it is established that oxybenzone and octinoxate, i.e. chemical filters, bleach and as a result severely damage corals as they end up in the ocean from swimmers’ bodies. For sensitive and reactive skin, physical filters, though often thicker in the end product with a tendency to leave a white-ish cast, tend to be better tolerated than chemical ones (depending also of course on the formulation of the product) and provide protection immediately upon application. Chemical sunscreens are usually thinner and easier to apply, but need some 20 minutes to absorb and start working. Always remember the importance of a face cleanser that cleanses the pores from any residue sun lotion, as sunscreen products, be they physical or chemical, can clog pores and cause impurities.
If you do burn, what is the best way to heal the skin?
Recognize the symptoms:
– skin feels warm or hot
– pain or itching
– headache, fever, fatique if severe sunburn
Take frequent cool showers or baths, or apply a cool cloth to the affected area. Keep the area dry and if flaking occurs apply a moisturising and soothing product. For some, natural yoghurt works well. I like Laponie’s All-around balm, which with its oat oil and bisabolol soothes upset skin. You may take some ibuprofen to reduce swelling, redness and pain. Remember to drink plenty of water, as a sunburn draws fluid to the skin’s surface and away from the rest of the body. If physical symptoms are severe and persist, see a doctor. If your skin blisters, allow the blisters to heal, and do not pop them. Be extra careful to protect sunburned skin as it heals; use protective clothing and stay out of the sun.