When I was growing up, and most likely, when you were growing up if you are in midlife, a sleek, bronzed skin in the summer months was seen as the ultimate in health, athleticism, vitality and beauty. We scooted out our doors just as soon as the spring sun allowed, wearing the skimpiest bikini our moms would tolerate, and covered our bodies in coconut scented oils guaranteed to soak in every last golden ray of sunshine. Several hours later, we would come in from the heat, and those of us who are fair-skinned would sport a bright red burn for a few days. But that was the price we willingly paid for that glorious, beautiful tan. We neither knew about, nor would we have cared about, SPF (sun protection factor). And once tanning beds were invented, we could sport a "healthy" tan all year long.
My, how times have changed.
Now that we are older, we are hopefully wiser about the dangers of tanning. We now know that exposure to UV rays can lead to premature aging, wrinkles, leathery skin, age spots, and, dangerously, immune system suppression and skin cancers.
The American Academy of Dermatologists states that there is no such thing as a safe tan. Tanning is actually a symptom of skin damage. As UV rays from the sun or a tanning bed hit the body, the skin cells produce melanin to try to protect themselves from further damage. That's what causes the tan.
You might think that if you don't get out in the sun or use a tanning bed a lot, that you won't be at risk. But over time, the damage from UV rays adds up. That's because the sun protection factor (SPF) from the melanin in the cells is only 2 to 4. We need at least an SPF of 15, and better yet, an SPF of 30 or more, to adequately protect the skin against damage from UV radiation.
Healthy skin has healthy collage and elastin fibers which make it look full and smooth. As the damage from tanning adds up, leathery, wrinkled skin and dark spots develop because the UV rays break down the skin's collagen and elastin fibers.
There are two types of UV radiation that reach the earth. UVA rays cause skin cell aging, damage DNA, and can lead to skin cancer. Tanning beds produce more UVA than UVB. UVB rays are most likely to cause sunburn, and are also thought to be the cause of most skin cancers in the United States. Many women by midlife have been exposed to both types of radiation.
While it is too late to reverse the effects of our teenage and young adult lack of care for our skin, we can do better in the summers ahead.
You can enjoy the warm, sunny weather of spring and summer and still protect your skin with some simple tips.
First, keep in mind when and where you are most likely to be exposed to UV radiation. UV rays are strongest between 10 AM and 4 PM, in the spring and summer months, closer to the equator, and at higher elevations. UV rays can penetrate clouds, so just because it is a cloudy day, you are not protected from UV exposure. UV rays can also bounce off surfaces such as glass, water, pavement, and grass. This is why you are more likely to get sunburned in a swimming pool.
If you are going to be outside on a sunny day, take steps to protect your skin. Before going out in the sun, use a broad spectrum sun screen with an SPF of 30 or above to all areas of exposed skin, including the face and back of the neck. Re-apply your sunscreen frequently as it will wear off.
Wear protective clothing. Look for clothing with labels that offer UV protection. Light colored, natural fabrics can cover a lot of skin while still being cool and comfortable.
To protect your face and the top of your head, make the stylish choice and wear a wide-brimmed hat.
Take refuge in the shade of a tree, umbrella, or parasol.
To sport a tan while out in the sun, use bronzing lotions rather than tanning beds.
Sun, wind, and heat can dry your skin, so it is important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, even if you don't feel thirsty.
Wear sunglasses with UV protection to protect your eyes. Just like your skin, your eyes are vulnerable to damage from UV radiation.
When you come in from the outdoors, treat your skin to a gentle cleansing and lubricate with lotion or body butter.
Even with precautions, you may get a sunburn. It may take 6-48 hours for the full effects of a sunburn to appear. Treat a sunburn with cool baths, over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams, and aspirin for pain. A severe sunburn, with a large area of red, blistered skin, and headache, fever, or chills, should be treated as a medical emergency.