Tackling Sun Damage

By Elana Pruitt © 2006-2009
PlasticSurgery.com Editor

For many people, the arrival of summertime arouses excitement and the desire to bask in laziness and warm weather. There are outdoor music festivals, chasing the kids at the park, vacationing on paradise islands, and of course, sprawling out at the beach in hopes of gaining the most perfect, “natural-looking” tan. Yet, before you make plans to lay out with friends, or make an appointment at your local tanning salon for a quick 10 minutes, take note: the number one cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Even though cosmetic treatments can improve the appearance of sun damaged, or photoaged, skin, try to tackle this problem before it turns a grave condition, requiring serious medical treatment.

Tackling Sun DamageWhile it’s never too late to take protective and preventive measures one step further, the earlier you start the better. According to Stella S. Matsuda, M.D., a leading dermatologist of the Kaheka Professional Center Building in Honolulu, men and women are not taking the proper precautions against sun damage. Hawaii may offer its residents a comfortable, year-round, warm climate, but that doesn’t mean everyone takes the time to learn about its weather safety dos and don’ts.

“I see people everyday regarding sun damage,” Dr. Matsuda says, admitting that those in the community are aware of it, like older surfers, but tend to have misperceptions. “Most people think that if they don’t go to the beach, surf, or play golf, then they won’t get burned or get sun damage; they respond with ‘But I’m not getting enough exposure’ or ‘But I don’t see the sun!’”

It’s true – gloomy days can be deceitful, with the sun hiding behind the clouds yet still offering penetration. So prepare for these days, just as you would for 100-degree weather. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, temperature alone is not an accurate indication of how damaging the sun can be: “Though clouds keep much of the sun’s heat (infrared radiation) from reaching the earth, they block as little as 20 percent of the harmful UV radiation. Water, sand, concrete, and snow are highly reflective surfaces, bouncing back as much as 90 percent of the sun’s rays upwards and sideways.”

Sun Damage Treatment

While it’s no secret that sunscreen is designed to protect our skin from UV radiation, standing guard against the unsightly invasion of sun damage, most doctors recommend avoiding the sun altogether or at least diminishing your exposure to it. Dr. Matsuda says she does not advocate “laying out,” especially between the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Unfortunately, the most popular time to enjoy the outdoor heat can also be the most dangerous. So heading to the tanning booth to “get some color” may seem smarter right? Yet, following the doctor’s orders and avoiding the sun shouldn’t mean risking your health to an even greater hazard – despite its popularity among men and women.

Artificial light is known to give off the deep penetration of UVA radiation (320 – 400 nm/light), which is primarily responsible for premature aging of the skin, while natural sunlight is composed of UVB radiation (280 – 320 nm); a key source of sunburns and damaging to the skin. Both types of UV radiation add to the development of skin cancer. You may be someone who rarely picnics outside or heads to the beach, or has never stepped foot in a tanning salon, but we are all susceptible to UV exposure, whether we realize it or not. Simple tasks like driving to work, walking to our cars, or even just sitting near a window is considered secondary UV exposure, according to Burn Survivors Throughout the World (BSTTW), an international non-profit organization.

So what exactly is UV radiation? Contained in the sun’s spectrum, and not visible to the naked eye: “It is divided into UVA, UVB, and UVC radiation. UVC radiation is completely filtered out by the ozone layer, leaving us exposed to UVA and UVB radiation,” according to UV-Check.com.

Dr. Matsuda says there are many companies that have an array of sunscreens, with some offering protection to both types of UV radiation. Yet, in determining which type of sunscreen is best for a person’s skin depends on various factors, such as the type of activity he or she is engaged in, the weather condition, and altitude. Besides putting sunscreen on about 20 minutes before going out in the sun, reapplication about every two hours is extremely important in protecting your skin, she explains, even though, “Most people are not using the right amount – only putting on about 1/4 or 1/3 of it.”

Small amounts of UV radiation are considered essential for the production of Vitamin D, yet overexposure may result in acute and chronic health effects on the skin, eye, and immune system, according to the World Health Organization.

Microdermabrasion, Chemical Peels and More

“Sun damage can begin in childhood, so protection against it should begin during that time,” she says, admitting that signs of sun damage normally do not appear until later in life. Common symptoms include freckles on the exposed area, brown spots, an increased amount of moles, wrinkles, broken blood vessels, and roughness. To reduce to the effects of photoaging, several cosmetic treatments are available at the discretion of your physician. To distinctly reduce various conditions like facial wrinkles, the appearance of scars and irregularities, or smooth out rough skin, treatments such as Botox®, chemical peels, collagen injections, dermabrasion, and laser skin resurfacing offer unique improvement.

Giving insight into the growing rate of sun damage among men and women, Dr. Matsuda says that in the late 1990s, those with photoaged skin were typically in their 60s and 70s, but these days its between people in their 40s, 50s, and even in their 30s. So as you think that 15 minutes here and there exposed to the sun without sunscreen or appropriate clothing won’t truly hurt your skin, think again. Span that nonchalance and neglect over years, and you’re only increasing your risk to skin cancer. “Photoaging is cumulative, that what starts at mild damage and without treatment, will continue to progress,” Dr. Matsuda explains.

One of the most effective treatments for sun damaged, precancerous conditions like actinic kerotosis (AK), which affects the top layer of the skin, is cryotherapy, or cryosurgery, which Dr. Matsuda frequently uses on her patients and considers the best option. “It individually treats a lesion and lasts only a few seconds,” she says, but admitting that it does cause discomfort and blistering. Cryotherapy is the method of using extreme cold to destroy diseased tissue, commonly known as “freezing” the cancer cells. Heavily involved with treating precancerous conditions, Dr. Matsuda says that other effective treatments to actively improve variations of sun damaged skin or AK include the topical applications of Aloe Vera, Imiquod (Aldera), and 5-Fluorouracil. Photodynamic therapy is another highly-regarded treatment, which involves a laser light and a special chemical designed to wipe out the cancer cells.

Taking the time to protect your skin from sun damage will ultimately benefit your health. Because maintaining beautiful skin, a youthful appearance, and longevity are high on most people’s list, learn how to take on sun damage and still enjoy your summer.