Think of your skin as a kind of storyteller: a smooth tightness along your cheekbones says you slept well last night. Look in the mirror, and little smile lines remind you of the last good joke your partner told you. Or maybe the puffiness under your eyes suggests a recent drama.
What else is your skin telling you?
Unless you’ve been living in total darkness, your skin is almost certainly telling you plenty about sun exposure. How? We tend to think of a tan as evidence of time well spent in Cabo, but sun exposure does more than just darken complexion. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 90 percent of the visible signs of aging (think wrinkles, leathery skin) can be attributed to sun exposure.
And if that little factoid didn’t send you running for a big, floppy hat, here are some other conditions associated with unprotected exposure to the sun:
By now you might be thinking: if the skin is a storyteller, it has a disturbing bias toward horror. But don’t fear. It’s very possible to have a healthy relationship with the sun, and a solid understanding of how sunlight works is the first step toward making that happen.
Before we dive into the mechanics of sunlight (and how it affects the skin), let’s get something out of the way: according to the WHO, “sunlight is critical to human physical and psychological well-being.” In fact, sunlight is essential to the body’s production of vitamin D, which plays an important role in skeletal development, immune function and the formation of blood cells. Take a minute to let all that sink in. Okay, good.
But when we say “sunlight,” what exactly do we mean? In reality, we should be talking about sun exposure more generally. The reason is that the sun’s rays can be divided into several distinct categories: light, warmth and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The first two categories (light and warmth) are perceptible to us, but UV radiation can’t be seen or felt. This means that exposure to UV radiation is much harder to gauge. Here’s what you need to know:
Making matters even more complicated, there are two distinct types of UV radiation that reach the earth’s surface: UVA and UVB rays. While both can lead to skin damage and even skin cancer, it’s important to understand the differences, too.
According to the WHO, UVA radiation is responsible for 95 percent of the UV radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface and penetrates deeper into the skin. UVA rays cause an immediate tanning effect, as well as gradual aging and wrinkling of the skin. In addition to the sun, many tanning beds give off large amounts of UVA radiation.
Most UVB rays don’t make it to the Earth’s surface, and when they do, they only superficially penetrate the skin. Despite this, UVB radiation causes direct damage to skin cell DNA and leads to more skin cancers than UVA radiation. UVB rays are also the primary cause of classic sunburn, as well as delayed tanning and visible aging.
This information might seem scary and overwhelming, but don’t throw in the beach towel just yet. By following a handful of guidelines, you can significantly reduce the risks associated with extended exposure to the sun. A little bit of common sense will protect you from premature aging and a plethora of ailments, from mild to serious.
This guideline may seem obvious, but it merits mention. When possible, avoid extended periods of exposure to sunlight, especially during peak hours (10am to 4pm). This doesn’t mean you need to cloister yourself in a musty basement all summer long. Instead, enjoy the sun from the shade of a beach umbrella. When you venture out, wear a wide-brimmed hat and clothes that have an SPF rating of 15 or higher. Looking for a reason to get new sunglasses? Find a pair that offers total (or near-total) protection from both UVA and UVB radiation.
This is another obvious suggestion, but when did you last read the instructions on the sunscreen bottle? In case you need a refresher, you should liberally apply broad-spectrum sunscreen (again, SPF 15+) every two hours. Swimming or sweating through a few games of volleyball? Slather it on with even greater frequency. Your skin will thank you later.
Not all days are created equal when it comes to UV exposure. Be sure to check the UV Index before you head outside, and budget your sun time accordingly. Don’t forget that UVB rays reflect off of surfaces like water, snow and pavement, causing increased exposure.
By now, you’re probably expecting more of the obvious. Well, here it is: If you want healthy skin that doesn’t show signs of premature aging, avoid tanning beds. If you’re determined to achieve that bronzed look, try spray-on (or lotion) tanning alternatives.
Certain products in your skincare and beauty routine may increase sensitivity to sun exposure. Be on the lookout for:
Medications like antibiotics, antihistamines and oral contraception can also put you at risk. If you’re unsure about whether you might be at risk of increased sensitivity to sunlight, be sure to consult with a physician before hitting the beach.
Like every other human to set foot in sunlight, you’ve had at least some degree of sun exposure. But don’t fret: there are ways to repair past damage to your skin. Just by hydrating and eating well (especially foods rich in vitamin A), you’ll be on your way to healthier — and healthier-looking — skin. You might also consider trying prescription creams designed to lighten spots caused by melasma or smooth the appearance of wrinkles.
Remember: your skin can tell you stories. When it does, be sure to listen.
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