Ever since I turned 30, I’ve noticed small changes in my skin at the end of each summer. New freckles, a new wrinkle, some pigmentation, etc. Each year, I tell myself that “next summer, I’ll be better” about protecting myself from the sun. Now don't get me wrong, there is no question that an appropriate dose of sunlight can be beneficial to our health.
Sunlight helps us create a vital nutrient, Vitamin D, which is used by our bodies to regulate hormones, balance mood, fortify our immune system, and strengthen our bones and connective tissue. The sun also has antibacterial properties which make it great for clearing up acne. That being said, it is still crucial to use good judgement and practice safe sunning when you are out.
In order to safely absorb the energy from our radiant sun goddess, we have to understand some key terms. We know “bling”, and we know “tweet”, even “YOLO” and “LOL”. But how about the terminology of skin science? For something so many of us seem to care so much about, we know comparatively little. So here’s a primer of must-know terms and concepts for anyone looking to up their dermal IQ.
Antioxidant refers to the ability of a chemical or ingredient to counteract or block the damaging effects of free radical activity. Such a substance can be part of the body’s own natural antioxidant protective system (derived through proper nutrition and healthy cellular DNA), or as a topical application. Antioxidants are found in many anti-aging cosmetics these days. Some of the most potent antioxidants that you have heard of are vitamin C, green tea, astaxanthin, resveratrol, assorted essential oils and vitamin E. Not only do these antioxidants help fight free radical damage, but they are also used as natural preservatives in organic or preservative free skin care products.
Free radicals are atoms or molecules with an unpaired electron. This makes them very unstable and highly reactive which is corrected when they either give an electron to another molecule or take one from a healthy one. Internally, free radicals are produced by metabolic reactions. Externally, they are the result of UV radiation, pesticides, air pollution, drugs, and unhealthy dietary habits. The body has its own natural mechanism of protection against free radical damage, however this protective ability diminishes with age. In addition, the production of free radicals over and above that from which the body can protect itself is responsible for numerous problems. Thus, free radicals are considered to be the most active compounds in the aging process. They damage DNA, the cellular membrane, and the connective tissue of the dermal layer, particularly collagen.
SPF stands for sun protection factor and refers to the amount of ultraviolet energy required to produce minimal redness on unprotected skin. It’s important to use sunscreens that filter out both UVA and UVB rays.
UVA rays are light composed of wavelengths ranging between 360-320nm. UVA has the lowest energy potential, but penetrates most deeply into the skin, causing significant damage to collagen, elastin and cellular DNA. Even low doses of UVA can penetrate into the dermis where it can stimulate the production of melanin (this is where photodamage comes from). UVA is a particularly potent carcinogenic promoter and is associated with aging of the skin (think UVA = aging).
UVB rays are light composed of wavelengths ranging between 320-280nm. UVB rays penetrate through the stratum corneum and epidermis causing skin redness and a sunburn. Directly absorbed by DNA molecules, UVB is a major cause of lethal and tumorigenic concerns (think UVB = burning).
There are many different kinds of sunscreen available now, some working on chemical principles and others on physical principles.
Chemical sunscreens are able to absorb UV light, converting it to heat that is dispersed in the skin, thus defusing its damaging energy. Some of the most common chemical filters in sunscreens are avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene and oxybenzone. Take caution in using chemical sunscreens, as there is not enough data to conclude that this relatively new “absorbing” technology is safe long term. And let's not forget that your skin "eats" much of what you put on it.
Physical sunscreens work by reflecting or scattering UV rays from the surface of the skin. Essentially, they form a protective shield, or armor, over the skin: a physical barrier. There are two common physical filters used in the skincare industry; zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Since these are physically blocking the UV rays, these kinds of sunscreens can leave a white cast on the skin. Recent formulas have created nanoparticle or micronized mineral particles which diminishes the white cast usually associated with these kinds of sun protection methods. These kinds of sunscreens, although effective, have controversial reviews as some studies have demonstrated that nanoparticles can enter the lungs where they can cause inflammation as well as damage to the heart. Stick with regular zinc or titanium dioxide, as these have lots of research to back up their safety and efficacy. Because they are comprised of larger particles, they sit on the surface of the skin and do not absorb as readily. However, it is possible that oily skin types may develop clogged pores due to this. But with proper cleansing and home care, this minor downside can be managed easily.
Plankton enzymes are a new growing category of skin care ingredients to use for safe sunning. Deriving from the Greek word meaning “drifter” or “wanderer,” plankton includes tiny plants and animals that float along the sea’s tides and currents providing the source of all marine life as we know it. Phytoplankton specifically, is made of very tiny--usually single-celled--plants. Since plants make their own food and release oxygen as a byproduct, all the other living things in the ocean depend on them directly or indirectly for food or oxygen. It is estimated that 80% of the oxygen on earth is produced by phytoplankton. Phytoplankton produce their own food by lassoing the energy of the sun in a process called photosynthesis. So for sunlight to reach them, they need to be near the top layer of the ocean. New research demonstrates that the application of plankton enzymes can actually reverse DNA damage to environmentally damaged cells, namely, after sun exposure. After sun exposure, DNA of skin cells can become damaged. When plankton is applied to the skin during and/or after sun exposure, the nucleus of the damaged cell becomes realigned and conforms back to its original undamaged state. This, in effect, slows the aging process of the skin, immediately repairs DNA, and prevents further environmental damage to the layers of the skin. This is a revolutionary substance that has been on the earth almost since the beginning of time but is only recently being revealed as a powerful skincare ingredient. Its uses are expected to grow as skincare lines are beginning to incorporate it into their formulas for added protection from the sun.
Vitamin C is another amazing ingredient to use for added sun protection. Imagine you have an apple core and you take it out in the sun. Exposing the raw apple core to the sun and air allows it turn a certain color by the process of oxidation….dull brown. This is basically what happens to our skin without any protection. Now imagine you spritzed some lemon juice (high in vitamin C) onto the apple core. This dramatically slows the “aging” of the apple and allows it to keep its vibrant fleshy color and texture intact for much longer. Vitamin C in skincare formulas acts in the exact same way although it can vary in efficacy and stability. Vitamin C esters are known to be most effective in providing protection to the skin and are also the most stable. They do not sting when applied and can be used in both water and oil soluble formulas. Other forms of Vitamin C can be quite useful for sun protection, however due to vitamin C’s natural ability to oxidize, it can become unstable very easily. Regardless, any form of Vitamin C is better than none at all. Wear it under your SPF for added protection all day long.
Other ingredients to be cautious with in regard to sunlight include retinols and hydroquinone. Both of these chemicals are highly effective anti-aging creams and brightening agents respectively. Keep in mind that using either of these products makes your skin especially sensitive to the sun, allowing for potential phototoxic effects. Use these kinds of products only at nighttime.