Dermatologists explain what to look for.

By Rebecca Norris
August 06, 2020
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As wonderful as the warm sun feels, there's no denying that those cozy rays cause more harm than good. In an effort to prevent the serious consequences of sun damage, we're here to walk you through the earliest signs to be on the lookout for and the best ways to correct and prevent any damage that does occur. In other words, consider the next few paragraphs a summer reading assignment. Your skin will thank you in the long run.

Getty / Silke Woweries

Know the signs.

While the most common sign of sun damage is a painful, red sunburn, its effects can be more insidious. According to Dr. Jennifer MacGregor, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, red and brown discoloration (think freckles and dark spots), changes in texture (like thin, crepe-y skin), excess wrinkles, uneven tone, and ultra-dry skin are all common signs of sun damage that often fly under the radar. As such, many people don't connect the dots between sagging skin and etched lines and, before they know it, their dermatologist is giving them a basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma diagnosis—which are all forms of skin cancer, the latter being the deadliest of the three.

Understand the difference between sun damage and skin cancer.

Since skin cancer is so prevalent—according to skincancer.org, more than 9,500 people are diagnosed every day—it's important to know what to look for when analyzing your skin and potential sun damage. "Actinic keratoses, also referred to as pre-cancerous growths, develop more often in areas of chronic sun exposure, such as the face, neck, and back of the hands," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Brendan Camp explains. "Left untreated, actinic keratoses may progress to squamous cell carcinoma. Similar skin changes may develop on the skin of the lips, which is referred to as actinic cheilitis. Actinic is a term that refers to exposure to UV radiation and cheilitis means inflammation of the lips."

Wear long-lasting broad-spectrum sunscreen.

"Daily—even inside," Dr. MacGregor emphasizes. While many skincare and makeup products are formulated with sunblock, she urges you to wear a targeted SPF. "No, your makeup is never going to be enough sunscreen," she says. "Do some homework, talk to experts, try a lot of samples, and find one that you really like."

Apply sunblock everywhere.

Sure, your face might be what you're most worried about when it comes to overexposure and aging, but your entire body can show signs of sun damage. Because of this, Dr. Camp reminds everyone to also pay close attention to the backs of the hands, neck, and chest. "To prevent your hands from aging faster than your face, apply sunscreen on them, too," he instructs.

Avoid direct sunlight during the hottest hours of the day.

It's so nice to go outside during peak sun—especially if rain is on the forecast for the rest of the day. But here's the ugly truth: The sun is strongest from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., meaning during that time, you're most likely to walk away with sun damage. "This is especially true if you're participating in activities that involve swimming or sweating," Dr. MacGregor adds.

Don't smoke.

Just like smoking can cause premature aging, it can enhance sun damage, as well. "Smoking is probably the worst thing you can do to your skin besides baking in the sun—it tears up healthy collagen and accelerates UV damage," Dr. MacGregor warns.

Never use a tanning bed.

It doesn't matter how much you want to look fresh off a tropical vacation—tanning beds are never the answer. As Dr. Camp points out, "the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization's International Agency of Research on Cancer panel declared UV radiation from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds, to be a known carcinogen."

Develop an active skincare regimen early.

It's never too early to start caring for your complexion. "The earlier, the better," Dr. MacGregor emphasizes. "At minimum, a skincare routine should include an active vitamin C along with your morning sunscreen and evening retinoid, if tolerated. If you tend to have redness and super sensitive skin, this worsens with age, so start early and use a combination of ingredients to reduce the redness and slow the progression." And, whatever you do, don't forget sunscreen as the last step of your skincare routine.

Reapply often—especially while you're near water.

Since it can be tough to avoid the sun (especially during summer, on vacation, or if you live in a warm climate year-round), the best course of action is to reapply often and amply. "Reapplication of SPF is key, especially for active people," says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Kenneth Howe, who practices at Wexler Dermatology, noting those on the water and slopes are most at risk. "Layering SPF (such as a stick after SPF lotion application) is a great way to get added protection," he adds.

Remember: Prevention is key.

Dr. Howe says that our tools for prevention are simply better than the ones we have to treat sun damage. "Sun damage is fully preventable, after all," he explains. "Also, once a structure like the skin suffers damage, that damage affects the proper functioning of the skin, which in turn leads to further damage. In this way, dermatologists talk of 'a cascade' of deleterious effects stemming from UV damage."

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