When I was in my teens and early 20s, I loved the sun. I remember lying out in the sun with friends, timing ourselves to get even color on front and back. We were all aiming for that bronze glow, but my fair skin never really tanned. For me “color” was often freckles or burns; early in college I suffered several blistering sunburns, even on my face. Then I became a biology major and learned about melanoma: how UV exposure is a cause; how quickly it can spread to lymph nodes, brain, bone, liver; how fair-skinned people with a history of sunburns are at higher risk. Other forms of skin cancer are less deadly but more common, and almost all skin cancers can be attributed to sun exposure. I was scared enough to stop. Unfortunately, a lot of damage was already done.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Licensed esthetician Kelley Maddison says, “The amount of sun damage I see is ridiculous!” With the days getting longer and warmer (and many escaping the February cold for sunnier places) I figured we could all use a reminder of the importance of sun protection. I’ve also noticed in recent months that there is so much confusion about sunscreen ingredients and so much controversy about Vitamin D deficiency that some might be tempted to abandon sunscreen use entirely. The American Academy of Dermatology, American Cancer Society, The Skin Cancer Foundation, and other organizations recommend the use of broad-spectrum sunscreen to reduce the risk of skin cancer. But protecting your skin from UV exposure can improve the appearance of your skin, too.

A recent facial made me more aware of my own dark spots and fine lines, the lasting gifts from my unprotected sunning. Maddison notes that with sun damage, “the skin will lose its firmness quite significantly. Sagging skin and deep set wrinkles are caused by UV damage as the rays destroy collagen and elastin fibers within the skin. Also, the skin begins to take on a very leathery-like quality and the hue of the skin can change to deeper brown color. Hyperpigmentation (brown spots) also begins to appear and can be stubborn to get rid of. There are also skin conditions such as actinic keratosis which can show up–this is a precursor to certain skin cancers.”

Moles can also be precursors to cancers, particularly what is known as atypical moles (or atypical nevi). People who have many of these moles have a higher chance of developing melanoma, and sun exposure can lead to the formation of new moles as well as leading to changes in atypical moles. A close friend of mine recently had several moles removed and biopsied; this process required stitches and may result in scarring. Reducing sun exposure can minimize this damage.

So what else should we be doing to protect our skin?

“I tell my clients to start protecting their skin from any further damage by using a physical sunblock of SPF30,” Maddison recommends. When choosing your sunscreen, you may hear about ingredients that offer chemical protection (think avobenzone and oxybenzone) or physical sunscreen ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which reflect UV. There are pros and cons to each of these types of sunscreens. “I don’t care for chemical sunscreens,” Maddison says. “Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays. The heat from these rays can actually make hyperpigmentation worse. I prefer a physical block (one that contains zinc and titanium). Also, clients with sensitive skin and rosacea can’t tolerate chemical sunscreens.” Whichever you choose (many brands contain both physical and chemical sunscreen ingredients), you’ll want to select a broad-spectrum sunscreen to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. The Mayo Clinic offers an online review of sunscreen options with information to help you choose.

Once you’ve chosen your sunscreen, you need to use it. Use it daily, use it even on cloudy days and in the winter, and reapply frequently. You’ll also want to avoid the sun when it’s most intense, usually between 10 am and 2 pm, and cover up with hats and long sleeves or seek shade for even more protection. What about vitamin D; aren’t we in danger of vitamin D deficiency unless we spend time in the sun? The Skin Cancer Foundation “cautions the public against intentional exposure to natural sunlight or artificial UV radiation (tanning beds) as a means of obtaining vitamin D, since the health risks of UV exposure — including skin cancer and premature skin aging — are significant and well proven.” They recommend getting your 600 IU per day of vitamin D through dietary sources.

For those of us already dealing with the unattractive side effects of sun damage, there is help available. “Once clients begin protecting their skin from further damage, I can address how to correct the damage they already have through treatments such as chemical peels, LED, microdermabrasion and microcurrent,” Maddison says. “I also recommend a good home care protocol which usually includes things like retinol, skin lighteners/brighteners, AHA’s & BHA’s, peptides, stem cells, etc. I make sure the client understands that undoing the damage will take time and that they need to be consistent and compliant in order to achieve desired results.” Your esthetician can develop a personalized plan for you to reduce the appearance of dark blotches and fine lines. If you have other signs of sun damage, such as atypical moles or blemishes that are growing, that bleed, or won’t heal, consult your dermatologist.

And what about that elusive glow? Isn’t there a safer way? Yes, Maddison says. “Clients can get spray tanning done and use OTC products like powder bronzers and self-tanners. There’s no reason anyone should be baking themselves in the sun OR laying in tanning beds when healthy options are available to them.”

As the sun returns this spring (or you head south to find it) I hope you’ll remember to protect your skin!


I want to thank Kelley Maddison, L.E., for her expert advice and for the use of the last three photos above, which show sun damage under a skin scanner as well as the effects of severe sun damage.

Maddison is a licensed esthetician and makeup artist specializing in the treatment of problematic skin types, and she holds an additional Level 1 certification in the field of medical esthetics. She’s also the owner and formulator at PRIIA Cosmetics, offers treatments at her skin care spa, Esthetically Yourz, and shares skincare and makeup advice as The Mineral Makeup Coach. You can also follow Kelley Maddison on Twitter.