You might be surprised by what can help protect you—and when you should be concerned.
It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy—or it should be. Here are some simple strategies to enjoy the sunshine and keep your skin safe and beautiful.
Your summer skin strategy shouldn’t rely on topical fixes alone (but we’ll get to those in a minute).
Studies show that antioxidant micronutrients in food help to increase skin’s defense against UV radiation, support longer-term protection, and promote repair. In other words, the right foods can help keep your skin healthy—not to mention looking good. Research shows vitamins C and E, selenium, flavonoids, and polyphenols can help counteract biochemical changes that occur in skin following sun exposure.
Fortunately, you’ll get a variety of these nutrients by filling your plate with in-season summer fruits and vegetables. Be sure to include all the colors of the rainbow. Enjoy iced tea made with black or green tea to reduce UV-induced erythema (redness).
On the other hand, some foods contain psoralens, which are naturally occurring organic compounds that can amplify the effects of the sun. When you know you’ll be out in the sun, consider leaving citrus fruits and foods from the umbelliferae family (like parsnip, parsley, celery, and carrots) out of the picnic basket.
You’ve heard it before, and we’ll say it again: There’s no substitute for regularly applying a broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50—and not just in the summer!
While plant ingredients, including vitamins and extracts, are often found in natural sunscreens, don’t assume these ingredients will provide enough protection if you use them individually. For example, olive oil and coconut oil have natural SPFs of about 8. Likewise, topical application of ingredients like aloe vera and vitamin E offer some protection, but they aren’t adequate on their own.
And don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by thinking that your SPF15 foundation will get you through a patio lunch unscathed. It’s unlikely that you put enough on to achieve the full SPF value, and sun protection has to be reapplied regularly to be effective. Instead, pop a hat on your head, and make sure it has a three-inch brim. Protect lips with a balm containing coconut oil or shea butter and zinc oxide while you’re out and about.
For after-sun skincare for those times when you overdo it, be sure you have coconut oil on hand. Studies suggest virgin coconut oil helps to halt free radical production in response to sun exposure and has anti-inflammatory effects in skin.
But what should you do when sun exposure starts showing up long term in your skin?
Freckles are reddish to light brown spots with irregular but distinct borders that result from an increase in melanin (skin pigment) production. Spots usually appear in childhood on the face, chest, neck, and arms of those with fair skin—particularly those with red hair. Freckles fade over winter months and partially disappear with age.
Hyperpigmentation in darker skin is commonly referred to as brown or dark spots. These spots are caused by excess melanin too, and they frequently appear after a pimple, bite, or other injury heals. Dark patches of skin that appear due to hormonal fluctuations—for example, during pregnancy—are also more common in darker skin tones. You can reduce both types of spots’ visibility by using sun protection.
Age spots, by contrast, usually appear after the age of 50 on sun-exposed skin sites and are more common in people with lighter skin. Technically known as solar lentigines, these light brown to black spots vary in size. Age spots result from melanin-producing cells multiplying and skin changing in a way that prevents removal of melanin through normal exfoliation of cells. Also known as liver spots or sunspots, these are strongly related to chronic sun exposure and associated with photodamage and an increased risk for skin cancer.
If you’re looking for a natural approach to treating hyperpigmentation, topical use of extracts of mulberry, kiwi, and Sophora angustifolia individually has been shown in research to significantly reduce skin hyperpigmentation, with effects similar to synthetic hydroquinone.
Unlike age spots, actinic keratosis refers to small, rough patches on the skin that feel like sandpaper and may sting, itch, or burn. These patches appear in sun-exposed areas including the backs of the hands, ears, nose, lower lip, or balding scalp. Visit your doctor immediately if you see these patches as they are strongly associated with squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common form of skin cancer.
Moles are growths on the skin and may darken with exposure to the sun. Talk to your health-care provider if a mole changes shape (especially if the borders are irregular), color, or size or bleeds easily.
Shore up your antioxidant protection with vitamins C and E, as well as carotenoids.
Tap into this excellent source of the anti-inflammatory fat GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) that helps stop water loss in the skin. Use as a supplement or topically to protect skin hydration.
This carotenoid helps halt free radicals associated with UV exposure, mitigates inflammation, and improves skin moisture.
Lisa Petty, MA, ROHP, is a PhD candidate who uses her expertise in simplifying and prioritizing self-care to help women manage the middle years. lisapetty.ca
This article was originally published in the May/June 2020 issue of alive US, under the title "Sun Exposure: A Before-and-After Guide."