While sunlight does great things for our physical and mental health (hello Vitamin D), we also need to be aware of the dangers. It’s important to protect our skin, even in autumn and winter.
Not only that, but many of us choose to head to sunny climes for winter breaks. With global air travel opening up increasingly, and winter sun a real possibility for many of us, how can we protect skin from sun damage?
A bronzed glow to our skin might make us *look* healthy, but it’s easy to forget about the repercussions of staying out in the sun for too long. How many of us have thought ‘yeah okay, I got burnt today, but it’ll turn into a tan tomorrow’?
Sun can be damaging all year
Many people assume sun damage only occurs in the warmer months, but it’s just as vital to be protective in the winter months. As long as the sun is in the sky, there’s potential for skin damage. So how can we protect our skin from the sun?
We’re not telling you to stay indoors all the time – after all, feeling the warm sun on our skin is a blessing we can all appreciate. Vitamin D provides a multitude of benefits, and it’s important to reap these when you can.
What are the mental health benefits of the sun?
The levels of sunlight and darkness you are surrounded by trigger certain hormones to be released in your body.
Serotonin is associated with stabilizing our moods and feelings regarding our overall wellbeing and happiness. Lower levels of serotonin due to a lack of exposure to sunlight can lead to a higher risk of depression, which could explain why our mood and energy levels seem to be typically lower in the wintertime.
With the right balance of sunlight, it can also help improve your sleep. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for controlling our sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is typically released as it begins to get darker and is what causes you to feel sleepy in the evening.
What are the physical effects of sunlight?
Exposure to ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays causes a person’s skin to generate Vitamin D, which is essential when it comes to keeping our bones healthy, as our bodies can better regulate levels of calcium and phosphate.
According to WHO, “Getting anywhere from five to 15 minutes of sunlight on your arms, hands, and face two to three times a week is enough to enjoy the vitamin D-boosting benefits of the sun.”
However, repeated exposure to UV rays can cause wrinkles, age spots, broken blood vessels etc… While these are considered to be a normal result of aging, these skin changes can appear a lot earlier in life if you have some sun damage.
Also, during the winter months, the Vitamin D benefits are minimal from the sun – it is far weaker. But skin damage can still occur.
How do the experts suggest to keep safe in the sun?
Sreedhar Krishna, a Consultant Dermatologist at Skindoc, explains that dermatologists can easily identify reckless sun lovers just by looking at your skin samples under the microscope.
“Elastic tissue acts as scaffolding which keeps your skin taut and upright. Therefore, people who have overindulged in sun end up with saggy and leathery skin as they mature – the ultimate cost of the beautiful glowing tan that you might have enjoyed in previous years.“
Diane Ackers, a skincare expert from cosmeceutical brand, Doctors Formula, explains that we should think of UVA rays as the ageing rays, and UVB rays as the burning rays. Both contribute to skin damage and speeding up the effects of ageing, but it’s UVB rays that are mostly linked to skin damage and skin cancers.
…when your skin goes red or pink, it is a sign that you are already burnt
Both Sreedhar and Diane said that when your skin goes red or pink, it is a sign that you are already burnt. Your skin’s DNA is becoming damaged, and it is your body’s way of telling you to get out of the sun.
A study in Science Mag shows that when sunlight hits your arm, it can make the kind of DNA damage that causes melanoma mutations in just a second. In addition to that, the DNA damage can continue for hours afterwards, even if you’ve gone home.
Long term skin damage will push through to the surface and show themselves as hyperpigmentation marks and brown patches as we age.
What should I look for when I’m buying sunscreen?
Diane suggests that you consider your skin type, condition, and lifestyle. If you know that you are prone to being burnt, the higher the factor the better. Take into consideration whether you are going through any facial treatments. Treatments such as laser, dermaplaning, microdermabrasion, peels etc. will cause your new skin to be extra sensitive to the sun.
Consider your skin type, condition, and lifestyle when buying sunscreen
Your lifestyle is also an important factor to consider. If you love sports, particularly water sports, choose a waterproof formula. And be aware you can sweat sunscreen off too.
If you’re a make-up wearer, look out for foundations, tinted moisturisers, or BB creams with SPF built in. As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want to drop below SPF30.
Claire’s skin story
After being diagnosed with skin cancer in 2020, Claire Nield set out on a journey to create her own company, and wants to warn others about the dangers of sun damage.
“I received my melanoma skin cancer diagnosis on the first day of lockdown, so to say my life was shaken upside down is quite an understatement.
“Two surgeries and a big scar later, things are currently looking ok. Thankfully, the cancer was caught early, and I am now so much more aware of looking after my skin. I decided to set up The Flower Power Company. A year was spent researching flowers and natural oils used around the globe, and having discussions with my dermatologist.
I received my melanoma skin cancer diagnosis on the first day of lockdown
“Before my melanoma skin cancer diagnosis, I was aware I had sensitive skin and that I burnt easily, but I didn’t think too much about it. I was fortunate to be able to travel widely to hot continents in my twenties, wearing strapless tops and short skirts. I rarely wore a hat and often got sunburn, but I was too busy enjoying myself to think about covering up. I even used sunbeds; I now look back in horror at my younger self and the damage I must have done to my skin.
“I have had three moles removed so far: two on my back that turned out to be ok and the last on my upper thigh which was diagnosed as a melanoma. During the year of 2020, I had a full body skin check every 12 weeks following the surgery. Now it has been reduced to every 12 months but I know monitoring my skin is now part of my life and I won’t think twice about going to the doctor if I spot anything unusual.
I even used sunbeds; I now look back in horror at my younger self and the damage I must have done to my skin
“I still love being outdoors in the garden but now big floppy hats, long sleeve tops and cool trousers have replaced my old wardrobe.
“Be kind to your skin. Your skin is your largest organ and treating it with love is so important. It is not just about wrinkles and blemishes; treating it with respect can be life-saving too when it comes to sun protection.”
Top tips for sunny skincare
- Routinely apply your sunscreen. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 all year round. Yes, even on the cloudy days. Clouds actually mean that UV rays are more scattered, and can still attack your skin.
- Apply sunscreen half an hour before going out, reapply every few hours, and reapply after being in water.
- Try to schedule outdoors activities if possible. Keep in mind that peak sun hours are usually 10am to 4pm, and this is when you should be most vigilant.
- Prepare accordingly with sunhats, sunglasses and umbrellas, and seek shade where you can.
- Stay hydrated when you’re in the sun to reduce the chance of heatstroke.