The sun can do a lot of good. It regulates sleep cycles, stimulates the body’s production of vitamin D, and enhances feelings of well-being. But there’s also a downside: Exposure to sun can lead to wrinkles, age spots, and skin cancer.
In fact, sunshine is considered the single biggest cause of visible aging. But you don’t have to succumb to the damaging rays. Even if you haven’t been sun savvy in the past, it’s never too late to start protecting your skin, says Darrell S. Rigel, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. Here are a few important skin care tips for sun protection.
For starters, every woman should eat a diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables. They contain antioxidant compounds, which reduce the damaging effects of sunshine. (Refraining from smoking also makes a difference because cigarette smoke creates huge numbers of skin-damaging molecules.)
But the most important thing you can do is shield your skin from the sun. As long as you use sunscreen, take advantage of shade, and wear the right clothing, you can enjoy your favorite outdoor activities without worrying about the damaging rays.
HOW SUN MAKES SKIN LOOK OLD
Every time the sun strikes your skin, the skin produces pigment that scatters and absorbs the rays. The resulting tan means your skin is defending itself from harmful radiation.
But a tan can do only so much. Over time, the ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation in sunshine can weaken the lower layer of skin, known as the dermis, and promote wrinkles, brown spots, and the development of skin cancer.
The most common (and least aggressive) form of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma. It begins in the top layer of skin, the epidermis, and generally doesn’t spread any further. While another form—squamous cell carcinoma—often remains at its original site, it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body. Both basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas can be cured if detected early. However, melanoma—a cancer that starts in the skin’s pigment cells and readily spreads to other organs—can be deadly. It causes 75% of all deaths from skin cancer.
How can you protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays? This four-step action plan of skin care tips for sun protection will make all the difference.
DETERMINE YOUR RISK PROFILE
There’s no way to accurately predict whose skin is most likely to show premature signs of aging or who is more likely to develop skin cancer, says Dee Anna Glaser, MD, associate professor of dermatology at St. Louis University School of Medicine.
You should schedule a skin exam with your dermatologist at least once a year after the age of 40. If skin cancer runs in your family, you may want to start earlier than that. In addition, it’s important to do self-exams once a month. Signs of trouble include:
- Small pearly white bumps, or sores on the skin that bleed and don’t heal.
- Red, scaly bumps that resemble a scar and have a depression in the middle.
- Dark spots that are asymmetrical, have irregular borders, have more than one color, and are bigger than the size of a pencil eraser. These spots may be flat or elevated.
Anyone can get skin cancer, but some people have a much higher risk than others. The risk factors include:
- Fair skin. It doesn’t contain as much of the natural pigment called melanin that scatters the sun’s rays.
- Multiple moles or “beauty marks.” Melanoma cells are more abundant in moles and freckles. The more beauty marks you have, the greater the risk that cancer cells will be present.
- A history of sunburns. Even if you’ve had only one blistering sunburn in your life, you have a higher risk for developing skin cancer.
- A tropical address. The ozone layer, which blocks ultraviolet light, is thinner in tropical regions. Ultraviolet radiation is stronger in the southern United States than it is in the north.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT PROTECTION
Wearing sunscreen is essential for your skin care and sun protection. You should use it every day, especially when you’re spending time outdoors. To get the most benefits from sunscreen, here’s what Glaser advises.
Choose products with a high SPF. It stands for “sun protection factor,” and it’s a measure of how well sunscreen protects your skin.
SPF refers to the length of time that sunscreen protects the skin. Suppose your skin naturally starts to burn in 20 minutes. If you use sunscreen with an SPF of 15, you won’t begin to burn for 5 hours—15 times longer. Always use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, Glaser advises.
Apply it often. In real life, sunscreens aren’t always as effective as the SPF would indicate, says Glaser. If you’re swimming, sweating a lot, or rubbing your skin with a towel, the sunscreen is going to dissipate. Reapply this form of sun protection every 2 hours—more often if you’re swimming or perspiring a lot.
Buy a broad-spectrum sunscreen. These sunscreens will help block UVB and UVA rays. UVB light is the primary cause of sunburns, and protecting skin against UVA light plays an important role in preventing wrinkling and signs of aging. Choose a product that contains zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or avobenzone, also known as Parsol 1789.
Apply it with your makeup. If you use moisturizers or other skin care products in the morning, it’s fine to apply your sun protection sunscreen at the same time. First, apply topical medications if you use them. Let them dry, then apply alpha hydroxy acid or other anti-aging creams if you use them. Be sure to follow with a moisturizer, especially if you’re using alpha hydroxy acids, which may have a drying effect on the skin. Then apply the sunscreen, followed by any makeup you’re going to wear.
Give it time to work. In general, sunscreen is most effective when it’s absorbed into the skin. Rub it on about 20 minutes before you go outside, says Glaser.
Use the right amount. It takes about an ounce of sunscreen to cover the average person’s body. That’s about the amount that would fill a shot glass. “You should feel messy after putting it on,” Glaser says.
ADD EXTRA PROTECTION
Wearing sunscreen helps to decrease the incidence of wrinkles and prevent the development of skin cancer. But sunscreen isn’t enough by itself. Here are some additional skin care tips to protect the skin.
Always wear shades. Sunglasses protect the delicate skin around the eyes from wrinkles. They also help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration, the leading causes of vision loss in the elderly. Wear shades whenever you go outside, even on hazy days, says Phillip Calenda, MD, an ophthalmologist at Westchester Vision Care in Scarsdale, NY.
The best sunglasses block 99 to 100% of UVA and UVB rays—look for ones that have labels claiming 100% or total UV protection. Wraparound sunglasses and styles that fit close to the eye are especially good because they prevent the sun’s rays from coming in through the sides.
Wear a hat. A tightly woven hat made of canvas, with a 4-inch brim all the way around, helps shade your face, ears, and the back of your neck.
Wear long-sleeve shirts. And wear long pants. They offer the best protection from the sun’s burning rays.
Buy clothing with tight-knit weaves. It’s best to buy tight-weave clothes, some of which have SPF ratings just like sunscreen.
PROTECT YOURSELF YEAR-ROUND
Sun protection shouldn’t stop at the end of summer. Skiing without protecting your skin can be just as damaging as lying on the beach. To protect your skin in all seasons: Check the UV index. The National Weather Service and the United States Environmental Protection Agency post information on their Web sites about the daily UV index—the amount of ultraviolet radiation that is expected to reach the earth’s surface when the sun is at its highest point.
Ultraviolet radiation between zero and 2 is considered minimal and between 3 and 4 is low. It’s moderate at 5 to 6, and high at 7 to 9. A UV index rating above 10 is considered to be very high. If you can’t avoid the sun when the index is moderate or higher, be sure to protect your skin.
Avoid midday sun. Whenever possible, stay out of the sun between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., when the rays are strongest.
Stay in the shade. Enjoy the outdoors from underneath a tree or umbrella—and even then, use sunscreen because UV rays bounce around a lot. You can get burned even when you’re in the shade.
Forget about tanning booths. For some people, the UVA rays in tanning booths can produce a tan faster than the sun can. That’s because the rays are intense–and damaging.