By Anika Logan
As the warm weather beckons, more and more people are heading outside to enjoy activities under the sun. But are they being sun smart as they head outside for a fun filled day at the beach, a day of biking, gardening, or a leisurely day spent pool side? Let’s get sun smart about what the sun has to offer in terms of its good and bad points.
The sun gives off both visible as well as invisible light (or energy) that is called ultraviolet radiation. Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is broken down into two categories- UVA and UVB rays (or wavelengths). UVA rays are the worst of the two. These are the longest rays and they penetrate deeper into the layers of the skin than do UVB rays. UVA rays damage the skin and are to blame for sagging of the skin, wrinkles and premature aging. These are the rays that bring about tanning in the short-term but be aware that there is no such thing as a “safe tan.” UVA rays also cause the skin to burn and are believed to be potentially carcinogenic (cancer causing). UVB rays affect the outer layers of the skin and are shorter and stronger rays than UVA rays are. The skin generally absorbs most of the UVB rays it is exposed to. UVB rays can cause a sunburn and they also produce melanin which encourages a tan. However UVB rays age the skin and also damage the DNA at the same time.
UVB rays are a contributing factor in skin cancer, especially malignant tumors such as basal cell carcinomas (the mildest form of skin cancer), squamous cell carcinomas and malignant melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer). UVA rays are more dangerous than UVB rays because they outnumber UVB rays by nine to one and also more of them readily reach the earth’s surface. UVB rays go through daily as well as seasonal alterations, however this is not the case with UVA rays. Our skin is constantly exposed to the damaging effects of UVA radiation. As well the UVA rays make their way deeper into the skin, through the outer layer of skin, known as the epidermis and into the dermis (or second layer of skin). The dermis is often referred to as the “true skin” but damage here is more disastrous to the health of a person’s skin. The dermis of the skin goes through a continuous renewal process until a person reaches twenty-eight years of age. Upon reaching this age, an individual is considered to have “mature skin.”
Sometimes it takes many years for skin damage to make itself known. The dermis provides “the firm youthful mattress for the skin.” It is made up of a variety of elements including blood vessels, collagen, elastin, nerve endings and ground substances (glycol-amino-glycans and mucopolysaccharides). Too much exposure to harmful UVA rays causes the collagen and elastin in the skin to crack and shrink. This in turn causes the layer of skin to become smaller thereby making the epidermis droopy, wrinkly and saggy. The blood vessels in the area permanently become dilated and this causes the skin in the damaged region to often look flushed. The melanocyte cells that are left behind in the dermis area do one of two things in relation to the skin damage- they either die off all together, leaving a white spot on the skin or they try to overcompensate for the cells that have died, leaving a brown spot in its place.
Protecting your skin from future sun damage is crucial at any age and it only takes one serious sunburn to increase your chances of developing skin cancer by fifty percent. It is estimated that one out of every five individuals in North America will develop some form of skin cancer throughout their lifetime. This works out to be approximately 1.0 million people each and every year. It is believed that eighty percent of skin damage occurs before a person is eighteen to twenty years old. Consider this- one bout of overexposure to the skin can end in red, painful skin that is sunburned and can bubble and peel. A bad sunburn when you are a youngster or teenager can increase your risk of developing skin cancer later in your life. Constant exposure on a long-term basis can cause premature aging of the skin, as well as freckles, wrinkles, age spots, dilated blood vessels, skin cancer and skin that looks leathery and dry and no longer has that soft, supple texture to it.
For all of the above reasons it is important to always wear sunscreen when you are outside and exposed to the sun’s burning rays, even for a short period of time. No one thing you do will block out the sun completely but you don’t want to do that as the sun has its good side in that it provides us with healthy doses of vitamin D that our bodies require. Using common sense and being sun savvy is essential for the health of your skin. Besides sunscreen with the appropriate SPF factor for you (which will be discussed later on), wear a hat when you are outside with a good brim on it to shield the sun and also wear a pair of sunglasses specifically meant to block UVA and UVB rays. It is preferable to wear a long sleeved shirt as well as long pants when you are outside in the sun. Cotton or cotton blends are the best choices for summertime wear, as they are the most comfortable and lightweight of all fabrics. They also allow the skin to breathe.
The words sunscreen and sunblock are often used interchangeably although the word “sunscreen” is actually the more accurate of the two. The words are used to describe products that contain SPF (sun protection factor) that is at least 15 but also can be higher as in 30 or 45. There is no one product that can completely block out the sun and that is why you can still tan your skin after applying SPF 15. Sometimes “sunblock” is the general term for the SPF products while “sunscreen” describes the ingredients that the products contain.
Sunscreens “work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering the sun’s rays on the skin.” They come in a variety of forms be they gels, lotions, creams, sprays, ointments, wax sticks and most recently a pill. The higher the SPF you use, the better protected you will be from developing a painful sunburn (erythema). Sunburns more commonly come about as a result of exposure to UVB rays.
For optimum protection from sun damage it is important to choose a “broad- spectrum” sunscreen. Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against and absorb the debilitating effects of both UVA and UVB rays. All sunscreens are not created equally so reading labels is essential to choosing the right one for you. For example, besides broad-spectrum sunscreens, there are sunscreens that only block UVB rays, physical sunscreens/blocks and chemical-free sunscreens.