Everything you need to know about sun damage and your skin
Deborah Duffey, Chief Product Development officer and President - June 11 2021
If you were to poll dermatologists about the most important thing you could do for your skin, their answer wouldn’t be the name of an expensive serum, or even some secret ingredient. Among their top tips would be to use a product you’ve likely used since childhood: sunscreen.
Why use sunscreen?
In the short term, using sunscreen prevents sunburns. Besides turning skin red and unsightly, sunburns can be highly uncomfortable—they can be painful, blister, and cause skin to peel. After all, you’re literally burning your skin much in the same way that touching a hot oven can burn your hand. And even when skin tans rather than burns, damage is still occurring.But unlike the burn from a hot stove, even once a sunburn is healed damage has occurred deep in your cells. Which brings us to the biggest reason to use sunscreen: to protect skin from long term damage like premature aging and skin cancer.
How does the sun damage skin?
The main way that the sun damages skin is through ultraviolet light, called UVA and UVB rays. When UV light hits unprotected skin, it burns (or tans, depending on your skin type), and the radiation leads to cellular damage which can cause DNA changes.
UVA and UVB rays affect skin in different ways. UVA rays:
- Causes premature aging
- Are most associated with tanning skin (it’s the same type of UV used in tanning beds)
- Reach deep into the skin
- Can penetrate through windows
- Stay at the same strength level throughout the year
Meanwhile, UVB rays:
- Are most associated with sunburns
- Strength fluctuates throughout the day and year
- Cannot penetrate through windows
They also share similarities, like their ability to damage skin DNA, leading to mutations that can cause skin cancer.
What are the long term risks of sun damage?
Because the sun causes cellular damage, problems may not be apparent immediately. But the damage is cumulative, and over time too much sun exposure makes itself apparent, namely in the form of premature aging like fine lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and loss of firmness. In fact, some studies have shown that the sun is responsible for 90% of premature aging (yes, that much—which is why sunscreen is one of the most important products you can use!).
But there’s more than just aesthetic considerations. Sunscreen, when applied correctly, can protect you from skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, are the most common skin cancers, followed by melanoma, which makes up a smaller amount of overall skin cancers but is the most serious. UV radiation exposure is the number one cause of these cancers, with the sun being the biggest source in most cases (tanning beds also expose skin to high levels of UV radiation).
It’s not just how much time you’ve spent in the sun that increases your risk of sun damage. Other risk factors include the intensity of the sun rays, and the location that you live. Those who live in warm, tropical climates where the sun stays strong year-round will be exposed to more UV radiation than those who live in parts of the world where the sun’s intensity decreases for several months.
Your skin type is another factor that can help you determine your personal risk. The Fitzpatrick skin type scale measures your skin, eye, and hair coloring along with the way your skin reacts to the sun and places you on a scale from 1 to 6. Those with light features who burn in the sun are at the lower end, and those with darker features who tan in the sun are higher. Those higher on the scale have a reduced risk of skin cancer, however it doesn’t mean the risk is completely eliminated.
How does the sun damage skin?
The way sunscreen protects your skin depends on which kind you’re using; chemical or physical. Chemical sunscreens form a barrier on the skin, absorbing damaging UV rays so that it doesn’t penetrate the skin. Physical sunscreens act as a physical block, sitting on skin and reflecting UV rays away. Some sunscreens use a combination of the two. Both protect from sunburn and long-term risks of sun exposure, so the best sunscreen is the one you’ll actually use. In either case, it’s crucial to choose sunscreens with broad-spectrum protection which protect skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
There are also technologies that can enhance the efficacy of a given sunscreen. At Kara Vita, for example, we use our patented nanotechnology, a nano-encapsulation delivery system that moves ingredients into the deeper layers of skin where they can work better than they can on the skin’s surface. When it comes to sunscreen, nano zinc has been controversial, but nano zinc may be preferred in some cases.
There are other types of sunscreens that are used in countries outside of the US, but for our purposes we’ll focus on those that are FDA-approved for use in the United States.
What is chemical sunscreen?
Chemical sunscreens include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene. These sunscreens are often used in conjunction with one another, as well as combined with physical sunscreens.
Compared to physical sunscreens, chemical sunscreens can be easier to apply to skin and they sink in faster. For darker skin, chemical sunscreens may be preferred to avoid the white cast that physical sunscreens can leave behind.
There has been some pushback against chemical sunscreens in recent years as a few studies show the ingredients may be absorbed into the bloodstream. Until more research and safety studies are concluded, FDA recommends the use of these sunscreens.
There have also been fears that some sunscreens, notably oxybenzone and octinoxate, damage coral reefs. It should be noted that the single study that promoted a trend of reef-safe sunscreen has been challenged by scientists.
While it’s understandable to be alarmed at headlines that claim sunscreen is unsafe for our bodies and our planet, overexposing your skin to the damaging rays of the sun without protection carries a far greater risk.
What is physical sunscreen?
Physical sunscreens include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They tend to create thicker formulas and can be more difficult to rub into skin, and often feel greasy and leave a white cast on skin, especially on those with darker skin tones.
Despite this, they continue to be the sunscreen of choice for those who may be sensitive to chemical sunscreens.They can also be more moisturizing than some chemical sunscreens.
There has been some fear around nano zinc due to the thought that the smaller particles can be absorbed into the bloodstream, but those concerns are unfounded. While zinc can be found in the body (both naturally and from absorption), there is no evidence that this causes any damage. And when it comes to the white cast physical sunscreen can leave behind, nanotechnology can actually help in this area. The smaller particles make it easier to rub in fully and can make wearing physical sunscreen more enjoyable.
It bears repeating: the risks of wearing sunscreen are tiny compared to the damage the sun can impart on unprotected skin. Whether you choose a physical or chemical sunscreen (or a combination of the two!) the most important point is that you wear it often.
How often does it need to be used?
Sunscreen should be used every day, even on those days you don’t think you’ll be spending time in the sun. It’s no fun to be caught outside in the sun without protection!
When in doubt, follow the instructions for your specific sunscreen or the advice of your dermatologist.
How often do you reapply?
Most sunscreens should be reapplied every few hours, or more often if you’re swimming or sweating. But this is often easier said than done. Don’t let your inability to reapply keep you from using sunscreen in the first place.
It can be helpful to keep a bottle of sunscreen at your desk or in your purse and use it to touch up exposed skin before heading outside. If you’re wearing makeup, there are powder mineral sunscreens designed to be applied on top that won’t disturb your foundation.
Does moisturizes with SPF work?
Yes! Using a moisturizer with sunscreen is a great way to streamline your morning routine and to cut down on the number of products you’re applying to your skin. These combination moisturizer-SPF products are just as effective as sunscreen-only formulas—whatever SPF is listed on the product is the level of protection you’ll receive.
However, this isn’t the time to DIY. If you mix your moisturizer and sunscreen together yourself, the SPF is diluted and won’t provide full sun protection. It is safe to use two separate products though (moisturizer first, followed by sunscreen). Just be sure to apply enough sunscreen to protect yourself, which is about a half teaspoon for the face (the exact number varies person to person!).
How to remove sunscreen
Most sunscreens can easily be removed with soap during a face wash or shower. If you’re noticing that this isn’t enough however, try double cleansing. Some people like to use an oil-based cleanser for the first wash to remove makeup and sunscreen, followed by a more traditional cleanser for the second pass. If you don’t want to use two products, it’s perfectly fine to use your usual cleanser twice.
How to work sun protection into your everyday life
The best way to start wearing sunscreen every day is to actually apply it every single day—cloudy days, rainy days, and even days you don’t think you’ll be outside. Getting into a routine makes it second nature to put on sunscreen and makes it more likely that you won’t leave the house without it.
If you start using sunscreen and find it irritates your skin or affects your makeup, don’t give up just yet. There are so many different types of sunscreens, including different textures, formulas, and application methods, that it may just take some searching to find the perfect product for you
Using protective clothing as well as sunscreen
No sunscreen can protect you from every ray of the sun. On days you’ll be spending extended time outside, items like hats, sunglasses, can provide extra protection.
A regular tee shirt provides some protection, with a white cotton tee providing around 5 UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor, which is the equivalent of SPF 5). That means that applying sunscreen even under your clothes is a must! With that said, you can find clothing items that are specifically designed to block UV. For long days in the sun, these clothes can give you extra protection.
When to avoid the sun altogether
In most cases, there’s no need to avoid the sun altogether, especially if you’re following precautions like applying sunscreen and wearing protective clothing. But if your doctor recommends staying out of the sun, you should follow their instructions. This may happen if you’re sensitive to the sun due to certain medications or conditions.
You can also minimize your risks by planning outside activities when the sun is less strong, like in the early morning or evening. Check your local weather report and pay attention to the UV index—this can be a good indicator of how strong skin-damaging UV rays are at any given time.
How to nourish the skin and treat prior sun damage
Even if you’ve gotten a sunburn (or two, or three, or four…) in your lifetime, there’s still an opportunity to start today with a sunscreen routine. The first step is to use a sunscreen with considerable protection every day, at least SPF 15 or more. If you already have a sunburn, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, apply a cold compress to the skin, and use a moisturizer to help the burn heal. If it peels or blisters, resist the urge to touch it!
By the time you have a sunburn, damage to your DNA has already occurred, which is why prevention is the key. But while some effects of the sun can’t be completely reversed, there are products and treatments that can reduce premature aging.
Vitamin A, sold as various forms of retinoids, is one of the best ways to reverse signs of sun-induced aging at home. There are over-the-counter products, or you can get a prescription for a higher strength formula from your dermatologist. Retinoids encourage collagen production and increase cell turnover, so skin heals itself quickly and fine lines and dark spots are reduced, skin firmness increases, and skin looks smoother and healthier overall.
Several other ingredients can repair skin: vitamin C, plant extracts, antioxidants, acids, and more. (We use Artemia Extract in some of our anti-aging formulas, an ingredient that can shield cells—including DNA—from UV damage.) It’s important that these ingredients are actually reaching the skin where it can repair it, which is where nanotechnology can be highly beneficial.
There are also professional treatments that can help repair sun damaged skin, like chemical peels and lasers. These can transform quickly; however, they may also be more intense and require downtime. Your skin type and specific concerns will determine which is best for you, so these are best done in conjunction with a dermatologist or esthetician.
It’s also a good idea to start seeing a dermatologist and receiving skin checks, if you haven’t already. During these appointments, your doctor will thoroughly inspect your skin to spot potentially cancerous moles or areas of concern.
A sunscreen regimen is one of the best habits you can begin for both the look of your skin and your health. Whether you choose a physical or chemical sunscreen, the most important element is that you apply it every day. When combined with other protective measures, like hats and glasses, and treatments, like retinoids, sunscreen is a serious remedy for premature aging and long-term damage.