Discover the best at-home and in-clinic treatments to prevent and minimise the effects of sun damage on your skin.
Many of us eagerly await the warmer months to get our good dose of vitamin D and an all-natural golden tan, courtesy of the sun. Sometimes, we get carried away and get sun burned whilst lounging on the beach or spending a prolonged amount of time enjoying a picnic in the garden without remembering to slather sunscreen or to wear adequate sun protection clothing.
Even if you don’t get sunburned, what we forget is that sun overexposure significantly contributes to premature ageing that is scientifically known as photoageing or photodamage, even in dark skin tones. This can eventually lead to skin cancer.
But, what exactly in the sun is responsible for skin photodamage? Beyond a suspect dry skin patch, what are the actual signs of a sun damaged skin? How can you best prevent and fix solar damage to maintain a healthy skin and lower your skin cancer risk? Read on to find out more.
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What Causes Photodamage?
Photodamage occurs when the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays cause DNA changes at cellular level in the skin that has been left unprotected by sunscreen or adequate protective clothing over an extended period of time. Over the years, this triggers premature ageing and in some cases it may lead to skin cancer.
Skin cancer cells develop in the body when repeated unprotected sun exposure compels the skin’s damaged DNA cells to repair and regrow. Over time, that regenerative DNA growth process can turn into an overgrowth known as overproliferation of cells, leading to cancer.
Photodamage can sometimes be difficult to detect, because it slowly destroys the deepest layers of the skin known as the dermis, which is invisible to the eyes. It can take years before sun damage surfaces at the epidermis level, the most visible part of the skin, making it much easier to notice then.
It is worth noting that the three main types of UV rays affect your skin slightly differently:
- UVA rays damage your skin cells at all levels, starting from the surface layer known as the epidermis down to the dermis, your skin’ deepest cell layers. Many important parts of the skin are severely affected by UVA destructive radiation, including collagen and elastin fibres, which are responsible for maintaining the skin’s elasticity and youthful features, the capillaries which are very small blood vessels, and epidermal cells.
- UVB solar rays are much more damaging to the skin epidermis than UVA light, because they more deeply penetrate and destroy the epidermis DNA cells. This may
- kick start the photoageing process and cause the formation of precancerous cells known as actinic keratoses.
- UVC rays are generally absorbed by the atmosphere and the ozone layer, and present less of a health risk to your skin than UVA and UVB rays.
What Are the Signs of Sun Damage?
A 2013 clinical study suggests that unprotected UV exposure from the sun is responsible for nearly 80% of visible signs of facial ageing in Caucasian skin. The main visible signs of photodamage include:
- Hyperpigmentation in the form of brown or dark spots and patches and melasma
- Uneven or rough and dry skin texture
- Fine lines and wrinkles
- Sagging skin
- Loss of skin elasticity
- Broken capillaries appearing in the form of spider veins on face
- Skin redness or blotchiness
Who Can be Affected by Photodamage?
Everyone can be affected by sun damage, from the newborns to the elderly. The level of photodamage you experience very much depends on a number of factors including:
- The accumulated length of time you have exposed your unprotected skin to the sun
- Your skin type based on the Fitzpatrick’s Scale skin phototype
- Geographical factors such as the climate and your location
People with pale and fair skin types are at a higher risk of photodamage and skin cancer than those with brown and black skin types, because of the lower content of eumelanin in their skin against pheomelanin which is more dominant in their bodies.
Eumelanin provides brown and black pigment to the skin, hair, and eyes. Brown and Black people have a higher content of eumelanin in their bodies.
Although mildly useful against damaging UV rays, eumelanin is however not enough on its own to shield people with brown and black skin types from sun damage and skin cancer.
In dermatology, the Fitzpatrick’s Scale help classify the skin’s colour known as phototype and determine photodamage risk as follows:
Type 1: Pale skin, blond or red hair and light-coloured eyes. Always burns, does not tan.
Type II: Fair skin and light-coloured eyes. May tan and tends to burn easily.
Type III: Medium light skin. May burn initially and tan thereafter.
Type IV: Light brown skin. Tends to tan with very minimal burning.
Type V: Medium brown skin. Tans easily and occasionally burns.
Type VI: Dark brown or black skin. Tans easily and very rarely burns.
How Can You Prevent Sun Damage?
To prevent your skin from photodamage and maintain your skin health, there are a number of simple, yet consistent actions you need to take.
Apply a Broad-spectrum Sunscreen
Your sunscreen should have a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher daily and every 2 hours or sooner, if swimming or exercising, as recommended in Dermatology. This helps shield your skin against the damaging effects of UVA and UVB rays. Opt for water-resistant formulas with antipollutant ingredients to maximise sunscreen benefits for your skin.
For environmentally conscious people, reef safe sunscreens with non-nano Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide are great options.
If you are of dark brown or black skin complexion, check out my curated list of sunscreens for darker skin tones to pick a white-cast free sun protection with hyperpigmentation-fighting ingredients.
Add Vitamin A into your Skincare Routine
A high quality over-the-counter vitamin A, commonly known as retinoid, gradually added into your skincare routine will help improve your skin tone, colour, and texture.
Retinoids, especially retinol, a vitamin A derivative, work by promoting cell turnover and increasing collagen production that helps improve skin elasticity.
If you have been a little negligent about your sun care routine during the warmer months, a retinoid is definitely a great pick-me-up product to help get your skin back on track.
However, not all retinoids are created equal, and some can actually trigger redness and irritation in sensitive skin. Hence the need to phase them into your evening skincare routine.
To make your life easier, head to this article, which gives you an in-depth understanding of both over-the-counter and prescription strength retinoids, and how to pick the right one for your skin.
For those with very sensitive skin, do not despair, here is a list of retinol alternatives you can explore to add into your skincare routine.
Use a Chemical Exfoliant
Gentle skin exfoliation with a PHA, BHA, or PHA exfoliant or a skincare product combining these 3 ingredients is helpful in unclogging pores, fading dark spots, evening out your skin tone, and boosting your skin hydration for a healthy glow.
Use and Consume Vitamin C and Antioxidants
As serums or creams included in your daytime skincare routine, vitamic C products are helpful in brightening your skin and protecting your skin against environmental pollutants. Additionally, vitamin C helps improve the effectiveness of your broad-spectrum sunscreen against UVA and UVA sun rays.
Like with retinoids, vitamin C products come in different strengths and formulas. This article explains how vitamin C adds value to your skin, and how to pick the right one for your needs.
In addition to this, incorporate antioxidant-rich foods into your diet, including leafy greens, tomatoes, watermelon, fish, blueberries, nuts and seeds to strengthen your immune system.
Invest in a Dark Spot Corrector
Look for a leave-on product containing clinically proven tyrosinase-inhibiting ingredients that you can apply daily to help gradually fade dark spots and patchy skin discolouration.
Apply a daily cream or lotion containing powerful hydrators such as polyglutamic acid, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and ceramides to help draw in and lock in moisture to keep your skin soft and supple throughout the day.
Avoid Peak Sun Hours and Tanning Beds
If you can afford to, stay indoors between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm when the sun is at its peak in order to avoid sunburns. Make sure to wear your sunscreen even if you will stay indoors all day long.
As for tanning beds, they injure the skin by attempting to mimic the effects of a natural sun tan by exposing your skin to an unhealthy dose of UV radiation over a short period of time.
Space Out Your Gel Manicure Sessions
Although they present a low risk of skin cancer according to a 2014 clinical study in JAMA Dermatology, it is worth knowing that lamps that are used to dry gel nail polish emit UVA rays, which are known contributing factors to skin cancer. Consequently, you are better off spacing time between your manicure sessions to minimise UVA radiation impact on your nails and hands.
How Can Your Dermatologists Treat Photodamage?
DNA cellular damage arising from overexposure to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays over a prolonged period of time and damage resulting from skin cancer are currently irreversible.
Whilst photodamage is not fully reversible, a number of in-clinic treatments can help significantly minimise their impact on your skin.
They are used in the treatment of precancerous skin cells, fine lines and wrinkles, superficial scarring, and hyperpigmentation disorders such as age spots and melasma.
Professional grade chemical peels using ingredients such as glycolic acid, trichloroacetic (TCA) acid, and jessner can help treat dark spots, improve skin texture and tone, and remove precancerous actinic keratoses in sun damaged skin.
Lasers are helpful in treating precancerous changes and improving skin texture and overall health. Different lasers serve different purposes.
A pulse dye laser is great in the treatment of broken capillaries and associated inflamed skin. For fractional resurfacing, laser energy is used to fade dark spots, soften wrinkles and fine lines, improve and rejuvenate skin texture, and tighten enlarged pores.
Prescription Strength Retinoids
Your dermatologist may consider prescribing you topical retinoid medication like tretinoin to help improve your skin texture and colour, and even out your skin tone arising from sun damage.
Photodynamic therapy is a treatment that dermatologists use to help remove precancerous spots that may be linked to photodamage. A topical medication is applied on the skin and a blue or red fluorescent light is subsequently used to activate the medication, which destroys precancerous cells whilst preserving healthy cells.
Microdermabrasion is helpful to treat blotchy or rough complexion, and age spots. The treatment focuses on removing the damaged outer layer of the skin and stimulating collagen growth.
The treatment uses liquid nitrogen to freeze precancerous actinic keratoses or age spots. A few days later, the age spots darken and shed off.
Flament F., et al. (2013). Effect of the sun on visible clinical signs of aging in Caucasian skin https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3790843/
Shipp Lyndsay R. , et al. (2014). Further Investigation Into the Risk of Skin Cancer Associated With the Use of UV Nail Lamps