Sun damage is no longer defined by what you can see on your skin in the present moment. You may have no sign of damage today, and it can be silently building up to rear its ugly head later. The least of that ugliness is the way it will age your looks. We girls who freckled and burned shamefully in high school while our exotic friends lubed up in baby oil now get to have the last laugh.
Dr. Kosari, an experienced dermatologist from DERMATOLOGY LASER & VEIN SPECIALISTS OF THE CAROLINAS, sat down with us to patiently answer all our questions, and to explain in very plain terms what is going on with sun damage:
The sun emits ultraviolet radiation (UVR). There are two forms of UV rays, UVA and UVB, that reach the earth and can be harmful, and exposure to these rays can cause a sunburn.
A sunburn may range from subtle redness that is hot to touch to severe burns that may cause swelling and blistering. Damage to the skin occurs when the amount of UVR exposure exceeds the protective effect of melanin. This varies in individuals based on the amount of melanin naturally in the skin. For some, it may only take 15 minutes of exposure before damage is sustained to the cells.
We were all, but Dr. K!, what about getting that “base layer” we talked about in high school? The thing that prevents you from burning?
Tanning in any form increases risk of skin cancer development and hastens aging including wrinkling, thickening of the skin and unwanted brown age spots. The idea of tanning to protect against a sunburn is not a good preventative measure. Instead use sun-protective measures such as sunscreen, protective clothing, shade-seeking, and wide-brimmed hats. If a tan is desired, consider sunless tanning sprays or creams which do not harm the skin.
To a dermatologist’s trained eye, a tan is just as much a sign of damage to your skin cells from the sun as a burn is… damage that is completely preventable.
For those of y’all who love your outdoor tennis matches or golf, or just running on the Greenway, Dr. Kosari told us to keep in mind that there are some times of day that are considered safer than others. It all comes down to the strength of the sun’s radiation. He recommends planning ahead – seeking shade if possible between 10 am and 2 pm – and using protection via clothing and lotion.
It is important to apply your sunscreen (of at least SPF 30) approximately 15-20 minutes ahead of going out into the sun. You need to give it time to sink in. Then, be good about reapplying it every 1-2 hours.
When it comes to sunblocks and screens, there are so many to choose from, and the labels can be misleading. Thankfully, our friends at DLVSC understand this and set up a super easy to follow cheat sheet on their website here. Dr. Kosari said he gets this question a lot – What do I use?! – and his answer was helpfully simple:
I typically respond by encouraging my patients to use whatever feels best on their skin and that they are willing to use often. Look on the label and ensure the product is broad-spectrum which means it will protect against UVA and UVB rays. Do not use sunscreens less than an SPF of 30. Apply approximately 15 minutes before going outside and reapply every 1-2 hours, after swimming or sweating heavily. Regarding application, apply one ounce on exposed areas of the body, and for the lips, use a balm that has SPF in it.
The most important factor is to find a product that you like and are willing to keep using.
He added that, in searching for a product you will actually like and want to use, creams are best for dry skin; gels work well for hairy areas (a man’s chest and arms, and the scalp); and sticks are ideal around the eyes.
Your scalp?! YIKES. There are definitely unexpected areas of your body where cancer is common, and unexpected places to get it. Per Dr. Kosari:
Any sun exposed site is at risk for developing skin cancer. Non-melanoma skin cancers frequently arise on the face, ears, scalp, neck and upper extremities, whereas melanoma is commonly seen on the back, torso, legs, head and neck.
Frequently, I see more sun damage, including presence of skin cancers, aging and wrinkling, on the left side of a patient’s face. This has to do with the amount of sun sustained with accumulated driving time. Although, window glass filters UVB rays, UVA rays typically pass through. Of course, if the window is down, both UVA and UVB rays pass through.
So yeah, sunscreen every day on your face, neck, chest & arms.
We also asked him about computer screens while we had his attention cause #themoreyouknow and #nostupidquestions, but he said that’s just urban myth. Screens are of no concern to doctors because they don’t emit UVR (Ultraviolet Radiation).
Finally, we asked Dr. Kosari if there is anything you can do post unprotected sun exposure / a sunburn to reduce cell damage. But basically, the damage is done:
There are topicals that can be used to alleviate the symptoms (pain, swelling, tenderness) of a sunburn but once exposed to UVR, the damage that is sustained to the cells has taken place.
Remember that sun damage is accumulated. One typically recovers from acute sun damage with no outward injury. It is only after years of accumulated sun damage that cells gain malignant potential.
Sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer.
Lather up, girls.
Thanks to Payman Kosari, MD for his generosity in spreading his wealth of knowledge!
Dr. Payman Kosari is a board-certified dermatologist. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles before earning his Medical Degree from the Chicago Medical School. He completed his internship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and relocated to North Carolina for his Dermatology residency at Wake Forest Baptist Health. Dr. Kosari specializes in the treatment of pediatric and adult disorders of the skin, mucosal membranes, hair, and nails and has had extensive training in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancers including malignant melanoma. He has a particular focus in venous disorders & associated treatments such as endovenous laser ablation and sclerotherapy.