You can thank sun exposure for most of the visible aging of skin — which is far greater than all other factors combined. Yea, UV rays from the sun are the primary cause of wrinkles, pigmentation, reduced skin elasticity, the degradation of skin texture, sunspots, and countless other signs of skin aging. Oh, and it’s a proven carcinogen (1)... On the upside, UV exposure is also the one factor of skin aging that you can control the most!
An estimated 90 percent of skin aging is caused by the sun (2). Sun damage is cumulative, with about 47 percent of lifetime exposure occurring before the age of 40 (3). And with one in five Americans developing skin cancer by the age of 70, the need to protect AND reverse skin damage from the sun before it is too late is significant (4).
It helps to have a basic understanding of what causes skin damage, the physiological effects of acute and chronic skin damage, and how skin damage occurs to better appreciate the importance of protecting your precious skin. So...
What are UV Rays?
There are 2 main types of UV rays that damage your skin:
- UVB causes the majority of sunburns (aka. acute skin damage).
- UVA penetrates deeply into many layers of skin. This type of UV contributes most to aging the skin (aka. chronic skin damage), but much less towards sunburns.
There is a third type of UV ray, UVC, that would be the most harmful of all, but it is entirely blocked by the ozone layer and luckily doesn’t reach the earth's surface. Let’s do what we can to protect the ozone to keep it that way!
What Exactly is a Sunburn and Suntan?
Sunburns and tans are clear signs that the DNA in your skin cells has been damaged by too much UV radiation. Just getting sunburnt once every 2 years can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer (6).
Note that sunburns don’t have to be raw, peeling or blistering to have been harmful. If your skin has become pink or red from the sun, it’s sunburnt. For people with darker skin tones or a tan, a sunburn may just feel irritated, tender or itchy.
Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its color. So a suntan is, in fact, a sign that skin has already been damaged, and tanned skin continues to be damaged whenever exposed to UV rays.
P.S. The heat you feel from the sun is from infrared rays, which don’t burn you. And you can’t feel UV rays, which is why you can still burn on cool or cloudy days.
What Happens to Skin When it Burns or Gets More Tan?
UV radiation damages molecules in skin cells, most importantly the genetic material (DNA). Physiologically speaking, one of many negative sides to this is the formation of different proteins and enzymes. The effects of these proteins are what cause the painful symptoms of sunburn by causing cutaneous blood vessels to dilate and inflammatory cells to be signaled over to help. When skin cells are in overdrive from excessive radiation exposure, it generally takes four to six hours for these proteins to be formed, and that’s why sunburn symptoms often don't appear until long after sun exposure.
DNA damage also can lead to the overall destruction of the involved skin cell, which is why skin peels after a particularly bad sunburn (5). Also note that the more skin damage that happens after repeated sun exposure, typically the less sunburn symptoms are experienced — which is why people with suntans, for instance, aren’t always seemingly as “sensitive” to sun exposure.
Your body has ways of repairing the damage, but it’s not perfect and damaged DNA often gets left behind. This mutated DNA is what eventually leads to skin cancer.
Great Ways to Protect Skin from Sun Damage
The first line of defense against the harm sun inflicts on our skin is through prevention. Afterall, the majority of skin cancers are shown to be preventable through enjoying the sun safely and avoiding using sunbeds (6). So what are the best ways to protect skin from the sun’s harsh rays? Realistically, we can’t shy away from the sun all day every day (and there is a thing called Vitamin D which is super important to obtain from the sun!), so the following are great options to significantly reducing exposure to harmful UV rays:
It’s all about avoiding getting burned. The ultimate way to do this is to not have the sun’s rays reach your skin at all. Staying in the shade is the best way to do this, and covering up with long sleeves, pants, and broad-brimmed hat (that are preferably airy, yet have special UV protective material) is another good option. Don’t forget your awesome UV-blocking sunglasses, too. Even then, the UV rays from the sun reflect a lot, so you’ll want to pay attention to what’s up next...
Need we say more? If it’s altering the melanin in your skin, then no matter how safe a tanning bed is deemed, it’s still causing skin damage.
Not only should you try to spot the first signs of a sunburn to immediately seek shade (because FYI, at that point putting on/reapplying sunscreen won’t do much), but you should also examine your skin head to toe regularly for long term effects of sun damage. That way you can do what you can to correct any damage and be more aware of your skin’s needs to make more informed decisions about your UV exposure in the future. It also never hurts to get a yearly skin exam from a physician.
How to Reverse Sun Damage
With sunburns faded and summer tans still going strong, it’s time to think beyond just protecting our skin from the sun’s rays… How do you reverse the damage that has already happened to your skin?
Layers of discolored skin cells hold onto brown pigment and make skin appear blotchy. Exfoliate using microdermabrasion + proven botanicals by using an Ayurvedic 3-in-1 approach that is a naturally safe way to smoother, brighter, and more lustrous skin.
Summer exposure to sun, chlorine, and salt water dries out your skin. Using a hydrating mist is a convenient and effective way to moisturize skin as often as needed with ingredients designed to plump up dry skin, make skin appear less wrinkled, and stimulate new collagen.
Get rid of those dark spots and even out your complexion with a facial oil high in sterols and Vitamin C. Apply it two to three times a day on the darkened/uneven areas. This brightens patches and balances the skin's hyper-production of melanin set off by UV radiation.
Antioxidants help protect the skin's DNA to prevent cancer—while also protecting the collagen and elastic tissue from free radicals that cause wrinkles and sagging skin. Use an antioxidant-rich treatment cream + smoothing facial oil as a multi-step way to best enjoy their benefits.
The sun makes us happy and feel good, but it’s not always your best friend since it damages your skin a LOT. There is one obvious conclusion that research shows: don’t spend too much time in the sun if you don’t want to age your skin faster. This may or may not be realistic for some people, so just try to spend less time in the sun while also taking as many preventative measures as you can if you are in the sun. You can also use proven natural methods to provide skin with protection and even reverse sun damage. The smallest changes in habits over time will have a crucially beneficial effect.
1) Ultraviolet-radiation-related exposures. Broad-spectrum UVR, pp. 1-5. NTP (National Toxicology Program). 2014. Report on Carcinogens, Thirteenth Edition. Research Triangle Park, NC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles/ultravioletradiationrelatedexposures.pdf. Accessed January 26, 2018.
2) Taylor CR, Stern RS, Leyden JJ, Gilchrest BA. Photoaging/photodamage and photoprotection. J Am Acad Dermatol 1990; 22:1-15.
3) Hughes MCB, Williams GM, Baker P, Green AC. Sunscreen and prevention of skin aging: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med 2013; 158(11):781-790.
4) Stern, RS. Prevalence of a history of skin cancer in 2007: results of an incidence-based model. Arch Dermatol 2010; 146(3):279-282.