As the winter temperatures begin to thaw, many may be dreaming of a sun-drenched spring and summer, and some may be hoping to show off a tan. While these individuals may believe tanning makes them more beautiful, this habit can actually damage their skin in the long run.
"Ultraviolet radiation from the sun and indoor tanning beds not only can increase your risk of skin cancer but also can contribute to skin aging," says board-certified dermatologist Arianne Shadi Kourosh, MD, MPH, FAAD, director of community health and co-director of the multiethnic skin clinic in the department of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "Moreover, other forms of radiation, such as heat and visible light, can negatively impact the skin, as can pollution, so protecting your skin from the environment can benefit both your health and appearance."
According to Dr. Kourosh, environmental factors can damage the skin in multiple ways, from UVB rays causing sunburns and uneven pigmentation to UVA and infrared radiation penetrating more deeply into the skin to damage existing collagen and reduce collagen production, resulting in wrinkles and sagging skin. Habitual UV exposure can cause blood vessels to become more prominent, causing skin redness, she says, while visible light and pollution can cause uneven skin tone, especially in darker skin types.
"Although there have been some impressive strides in anti-aging treatments, no one product or procedure can completely reverse the long-term effects of poor skin care decisions, and protective measures are the cornerstone of good skin care," Dr. Kourosh says. "Fortunately, there are many sunscreen options available to help you protect yourself, including cosmetic products with SPF. The best sunscreen for each person will depend on many factors, including genetic makeup, environment and lifestyle considerations. A board-certified dermatologist can evaluate the unique needs of your skin and help you develop an appropriate sun protection plan."
Since both types of UV rays can damage the skin, Dr. Kourosh says, it's important to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that provides both UVA and UVB protection, with an SPF of 30 or higher. She recommends sunscreens containing the active ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as a good source of broad-spectrum protection suitable for sensitive skin. She also says formulations containing antioxidants may provide some protection against uneven skin tone and aging caused by free radical damage from infrared light, visible light and pollution.
Dr. Kourosh recommends utilizing protective clothing like hats and sunglasses, and she reminds those who will be spending an extended amount of time in the sun to reapply sunscreen every two hours, or after swimming or sweating. While it's especially important to be vigilant near sand, water and snow, which can reflect the sun's rays, sun protection is necessary regardless of weather or location, as 80 percent of the sun's UV rays can penetrate the skin even on cloudy days.
In addition to practicing sun protection, it's important to avoid indoor tanning, which exposes users to harmful UV rays that can increase skin cancer risk and accelerate skin aging. Those who wish to look tan may want to consider a self-tanning product but should continue using sunscreen with it.
"Whether you're on a beach vacation or your daily commute, it's crucial to protect yourself from exposure to harmful UV rays on a regular basis," Dr. Kourosh says.
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