Summer is around the corner and that means outdoor fun and tanned skin. Our culture ingrains in us the belief that a tan makes us look younger, healthier, more attractive – even wealthier. The tanning industry promotes the “benefits” of tanning, although scientific studies have proved that these so-called “benefits” are false. While a suntan may be cosmetically desirable, in actuality, it is the skin’s way to warn us that damage has occurred and has tried to protect itself.
In my line of work, a day doesn’t go by without being asked “what can you do for my wrinkles?” The simple answer is: “protect yourself from the sun.” My response is uncannily immediately followed by my client’s “but I love to be tanned”, or the one I heard recently, “when I’m tanned, my teeth and the whites of my eyes look whiter.” So I need to ask, what’s more important to you, being tanned or not having wrinkles? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Sun damage is more serious than just wrinkles; but to fully understand how serious sun damage is, let’s take it step by step, and learn how to enjoy the sun safely.
All the statistical information about the incidence rates of all skin cancers, melanoma and associated deaths are easily found doing a Google search. To put things in perspective, there are more new cases of skin cancer than the incidences of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined. It is expected that, in 2015, there will be about 73,870 new melanoma cases diagnosed and 9,940 people will die from it.
UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic light spectrum (ELS) that reaches the earth from the sun, and is the most damaging type of light to all living things. There are 3 types of UV rays: UVA has the longest wavelength and goes through clouds, glass, clothes and skin into our bodies. UVB is shorter and can penetrate the epidermis. UVC is very short and it becomes completely absorbed by the ozone layer before entering our atmosphere. So let’s not concern ourselves with UVC for now – unless we are in Australia, where the ozone layer has been compromised.
UVB is responsible for causing redness of the skin, sunburn and eye irritation. Think of UVB as UV-Burn. The intensity of UVB rays varies by season, location and time of day. However, UVB rays can still burn and damage the skin throughout the year, especially at high altitudes and on reflective surfaces such as snow, ice, sand and water. These reflective surfaces bounce back up to 80% of the rays so that they hit the skin twice.
UVA is what we call the “tanning ray,” – this is the UV used in tanning salons – and it is known with certainty that tanning, whether outdoors or indoors, causes cumulative damage over time. UVA is prevalent during the entire year, day and night; therefore, all of us are exposed to large amounts of UVA throughout our lifetime 24/7. UVA is responsible for most DNA damage. As a matter of fact, recent studies suggest that DNA damage from UVA is the cause of “age-related” diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and other organ failures. It is believed that it is not the passage of time that causes decay in our bodies, but cumulative UVA-induced DNA damage. Think of UVA as UV-Aging.
Both types of UV lights create an enormous amount of free radicals that damage healthy cells causing genetic mutations that can lead to skin cancer, other organ damage and diseases of the eye. Additionally, both UVA and UVB destroy vitamin A in skin, which causes even further damage.
The skin is the largest organ of the body and it serves several vital purposes: protects our internal organs and tissues from the external environment (pollution, pathogenic / infectious organisms, chemicals); regulates temperature; provides sensation; synthesizes vitamin D; and gives us color, which in turn provides protection from UV rays; not to mention, the skin also holds us together in one piece!
The skin has 2 main layers: dermis and epidermis. The dermis’ main structural components are collagen and elastin. UVA penetrating into this layer disturbs collagen, elastin and connective tissues causing the skin to gradually lose its elasticity, forming wrinkles, sags and bags and localized over-production of melanin resulting in liver spots and melasma.
The epidermis is the outermost layer of the skin. It protects the body from the external environment and it contains various types of cells. The ones that play a direct role in UV protection are the melanocytes and Langerhans’ cells. Melanocytes produce melanin, the dark pigment that gives skin its color and where melanoma – the deadliest of all skin cancers – develops. Langerhans’ cells help the immune system by communicating with our T-cells about new invaders.
When the skin is exposed to UV rays, the melanocytes produce more melanin in an attempt to protect the skin from further damage; and this is what causes the change of color on the skin. The dark pigment of the melanin absorbs a majority of the UVB light and blocks it from passing to deeper skin layers, working as a shield against further damage. UV rays also suppress the immune system by killing Langerhans’ cells. Without these cells, the rest of the immune system is compromised, making the immune response (production of antibodies) impossible. Additionally, UVB stimulates rapid cell production, causing the epidermis to become thicker, course, leathery, dry and dehydrated, unable to function properly.
A sunscreen’s efficacy is measured by its sun protection factor (SPF). SPF is not an amount of protection per se, but rather an indication of how long it will take for UVB rays to redden skin when using the sunscreen, compared to how long skin would take to redden without it. In other words, a person using SPF15 will take 15 times longer to redden than without the sunscreen. An SPF 15 sunscreen screens 93% of the sun’s UVB rays; SPF30 protects against 97%; and SPF 50, 98%. There is no scientific evidence that an SPF above 50 offers more protection.
Since both UVA and UVB are harmful, a “full spectrum” sunscreen protection is needed. Full spectrum sunscreens contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as their active ingredients. These ingredients are what we call “physical” sunscreens because they sit on the skin to reflect UV rays away from the skin. In contrast, “chemical” sunscreens are synthetic ingredients that are absorbed into the skin with the purpose of absorbing UV radiation. But, since this UV absorption is not 100%, the radiation that doesn’t get absorbed is free to cause a large amount of free radicals.
As a side note, it is important to know that some of these chemicals are known for causing skin irritation, inflammation, allergic reactions, and DNA altering effects; not to mention that they are easily disintegrated or broken down by the same UV radiation they are trying to protect us from. Furthermore, some of these chemical sunscreens have ingredients that actually promote cancer. For example, Oxybenzone has been shown to increase production of harmful free radicals and an ability to attack DNA cells. It is believed to be a contributing factor in the recent rise of melanoma cases among sunscreen users. Other studies have shown it to be a hormone disruptor. Another sunscreen chemical – Retinyl Palmitate – which is a form of vitamin A, is used in sunscreens as an antioxidant. However, an FDA study found that this particular form of vitamin A, when used in sunscreens and therefore exposed to sunlight, may actually speed the development of skin lesions and tumors.
CONNECTING THE DOTS:
The best way to prevent wrinkles is to avoid direct and prolonged exposure to UV rays. The second best way is to use a full spectrum sunscreen and to wear protective clothing including hat and sunglasses. For those who like to sport a tan, I recommend the use of self tanners. However, keep in mind that self-tanners don’t protect against UV rays, and sunscreens must be used and re-applied every 2 hours when outdoors. For those who work outdoors – gardeners, lifeguards, roofers, and like professionals – don’t underestimate the power of sunscreens. Don’t compromise your health over a perceived notion that a tan makes you look healthier or younger. You can actually preserve your youthfulness AND your overall health by protecting yourself against damaging UV rays.