Pale Skin is In: The Science Behind Sun Protection

In recent generations, popular American culture has portrayed tanned skin as an image of good health.  Yet in reality, suntans and sunburns are a sign of damaged skin.  With an overwhelming amount of studies accumulating from different countries over the years, the word is out about the dangers of UV radiation.  Unfortunately, Florida remains high on the list of tanning bed salons per square mile, new skin cancer diagnosis, and melanoma deaths.  So the question remains – what can we do better to protect our body’s largest organ from its most well known carcinogen?

Speaking from my own experience, the best way to change a habit is to understand why it must change.

First we must understand what UV radiation is and how it harms the skin.  When UV energy is absorbed by the skin, it has the opportunity to damage DNA in our skin cells.  DNA manages new cell division, and once injured, may allow cells to divide uncontrollably and eventually develop into cancer.  Depending on the type of skin cell affected, different skin cancers can form.
When your skin creates “color” in the form of burning or tanning after sun exposure, it is showing you the effort your body is exerting in order to repair injury and prevent further damage.  Sunburns are the surge of blood to the superficial skin delivering immune cells to heal injury after excess UV radiation.  Tans show pigment called melanin that is released in an attempt to shield future damage.  Having a “base tan” means the harm has already been done.  This is the main reason we vehemently discredit the misconception that base tans are good for you.  Furthermore, repetitive exposure to maintain a base tan does not give the body a fair chance to nurse the damage and restore its cells.

Peeling sunburned back

You may notice that burns and tans form several hours after exposures to the sun.  This is because it can take over 4 hours for your body to respond to the initial assault on the skin.

Beyond harming skin cells, more deeply penetrating UV-A rays break down skin fibers and elasticity that leads to deep wrinkles and sagging skin.  Sun spots and uneven skin tones are also a product of over-exposure.  By routinely protecting your skin, you are not only setting yourself up for a lower risk of skin cancer, but you are also “pre-juvenating” to keep your skin looking fresh and healthy.

iStock_000019535250_SmallSo what are the best ways to prevent sun damage?  Sunscreen is a must.  I highly recommend daily sunscreen use. Think of how much sun exposure your skin gets during a normal day.  Add up your trip to the grocery store, the ride to and from work, walking your dog, and so on.  We get much more cumulative sun than we realize!

My favorite type of sunscreen are physical blockers such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which you can find in the Elta MD line we carry in the office.  Physical blockers work by reflecting and scattering UV energy compared to chemical sunscreens which absorb the radiation.  Look for SPF 30 through 50 and you will get over 96.7% protection.  But remember, no matter how high the SPF, it is important to reapply at least every two hours.  Ask about the Colorscience Sunforgettable brush as an easy way to reapply without having to use a lotion.

Sun protective clothing is becoming my favorite way to keep my skin covered.  I don’t have to worry about applying and reapplying sunscreen over the covered skin throughout the day.  Most sun protective clothing is SPF 50 too!  I am finding more of my favorite brands are offering UPF in everyday clothing, sportswear, and swimwear.  Hats and umbrellas can keep our scalp covered and our skin cool during the hot Florida summer.

I wish each of you a happy summer time!

Jessie Holland, MPAS, PA-C

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