Exposure to the sun is inevitable. As South Africa makes its way into summer, protection from ultraviolet radiation – energy that is emitted from the sun in the form of invisible rays – is of paramount importance. Sun damage can cause premature signs of ageing including fine lines, pigmentation, skin sagging and skin dehydration. It can also lead to skin cancer, a far more serious threat.
A study published by the US National Library of Medicine states that ultraviolet exposure may account for 80% of visible signs of ageing and that overexposure to ultraviolet rays can be a key factor in the development of skin cancers.
Taking steps to minimise sun damage means first, understanding the importance of protection and prevention, and then implementing new practices into one’s daily skincare routine.
Dr Cara Duminy, an aesthetic practitioner at Cape Aesthetics, explains that sun damage is split between short-, medium- and long-term effects. While some of the damage the sun does to our skin is immediately visible, other forms of sun damage can cause mutations to single cells that take years to become visible on the skin.
Short-term damage includes sunburn, which manifests as redness or heat on the skin. Fair-toned people are more susceptible to sunburn since they have lower levels of melanin, a natural pigment. Naturally darker individuals have higher levels of melanin, which makes them less prone to sun damage, but not exempt from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation, so they should still take the necessary steps to protect themselves.
Medium-term damage is evidenced through freckling (clusters of pigment cells that either occur naturally through genetics or become more prominent when exposed to the sun), premature wrinkling and hypo-pigmentation – areas of the skin that become lighter than the base colour. Symptoms including elastosis (sagging skin), wrinkling, decreased hydration, poor skin texture, hyper- and hypo-pigmentation, and skin cancers are some of the long-term effects of sun damage.
“UV rays damage our collagen [the main structural protein found in the skin], making it weaker and less able to support our skin, and causes an over-production of elastin, which makes our skin sag,” explains Duminy.
She adds that ultraviolet rays can also deplete our natural hydration, leaving our skin dehydrated and can cause our pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) to malfunction and produce areas of diminished and increased pigmentation, resulting in darker or lighter areas on the face.
The importance of sun protection factor (SPF)
The application of sun protection factor (SPF) used to be synonymous only with days spent outside in the sun, but dermatologists and skincare specialists stress the importance of including SPF in our daily skincare routines to minimise the effects of sun damage.
Dr Imraan Jhetam, a Durban-based specialist dermatologist, says the sunscreens we use should “contain physical barriers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide” and that “better sunblocks contain antioxidants like Polypodium leucotomos [a tropical fern] that repair DNA damage”.
Sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are known as mineral sunscreens, or physical sunscreens as they form a physical barrier on the skin and reflect UV rays.
If you look at the active ingredients and see only the natural minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, in, for example, Juice Beauty’s SPF30 Oil-Free Moisturizer which only contains zinc oxide, then it is a mineral sunscreen.
Whereas mineral sunscreens will only include the two active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, chemical sunscreens include non-natural chemical compounds such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate and octocrylene.
Similarly, organic and natural sunscreens should also only include zinc oxide or titanium dioxide on the list of active ingredients.
“Chemical sunscreen is absorbed by the skin and absorbs the energy of the sun’s rays. Mineral sunscreen is not absorbed [into the skin] and reflects the rays of the sun. I would choose the latter, to minimise my total toxic load for the day,” explains Dr Marianne Duvenage, a dermatologist in private practice at Noviskin, Pretoria.
“There is a lot of concern that the chemicals are not as innocent as previously believed. Even the FDA [Federal Drug Administration] is looking into the matter.”
Individuals with sensitive skin types or those prone to skin irritation should opt for mineral sunscreens as the ingredients are not absorbed into the skin.
The downside with using mineral sunscreens that include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide is that they can appear white on the skin. However, the translucent hue can be minimised when applied underneath foundation as well as by blending the mineral sunscreen into the skin for a slightly longer period of time.
Jhetam says that SPF needs to be used daily over face cream and under makeup and should be reapplied every two to three hours when directly exposed to the sun.
The role of antioxidants in minimising sun damage
Ultraviolet radiation can also induce the generation of free radicals, which, according to this study published by the US National Library of Medicine, can cause a condition known as oxidative stress, meaning that free radicals adversely alter lipids, proteins, and DNA and trigger a number of diseases.
Dr Mignon Laub, aesthetic doctor at Just Skin Clinic, notes that antioxidants, which are substances and compounds that prevent slow damage to cells and neutralise the free radical damage caused by ultraviolet rays, not only aid in reducing inflammation and help the skin’s ability to repair from within, they can also assist with collagen production, which is important for skin rejuvenation.
“Topical antioxidants such as vitamin C and E can assist in preventing sun damage [as well as] brighten pigmentation.”
Including antioxidants, either topically or orally, into your daily skincare routine can help minimise and protect against sun damage. Look for skincare ingredients that contain antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A and ferulic acid, to name a few. These ingredients can be found in serums and moisturisers.
Antioxidants can also be ingested orally in the form of tablets and powders that are available at selected health and wellness shops, and are also found in some superfoods such as blueberries, goji berries and pecan nuts.
How else can sun damage be prevented?
Other than incorporating sun protection factor into your daily skincare routine, Duminy recommends limiting time spent outdoors during the sun’s peak hours, which in South Africa’s summer are from around 10am-3pm.
“This can be difficult to adhere to, but avoiding the sun or seeking shade for as long as you can manage around midday is advisable”.
Duminy adds that if you are fair-skinned and susceptible to the harmful effects of the sun, you can also wear UV-rated hats and clothing when outdoors.
Skin cancer, including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, is the biggest danger linked to sun exposure. Annual visits to the dermatologist are crucial to pick up any change on the skin and skin concerns. ML
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