I grew up in a time, not that long ago, when sunscreen was for babies. Literally. No one over nine worried about getting too much sun—certainly not if you were a teenager or in your early 20s. Instead, we lathered on oils that touted their bronzing efficacy. We wrapped cardboard in aluminum foil to hold beneath our chins to reflect the sun onto our necks, because to have a golden glow––male or female––was considered beautiful. We didn’t even wear sunglasses, because we might get that unsightly raccoon-eye ring. Being pale was for chumps.
Now that I’m of an age to see the sunspots darkening my hands and face (this is your skin’s response to overstimulation by the sun, and an attempt to protect itself from further abuse) and crow’s feet crinkling my eyes, I think differently. There’s a world of research about how skin cancer doesn’t just happen overnight, too. No, skin lesions of all sorts are often the result of cumulative hours of sun exposure. Sun-kissed is a lie–– sun-beaten and wind-blown is a more accurate description of what happens to our epidermis.
I’m certainly not seeking the “I just spent a week at the beach” appearance anymore. Living in New Mexico, we don’t need to hit the road to find the sun. We’ve got over 300 days of it. Plus, we live at altitude, which enhances the effects of Old Sol’s rays. And did you forget the wind? That and our dry desert air contribute to dehydration, which is murder on the epidermis.
What’s a thinking person to do to prevent the damage that comes from not living in a cave, where simply walking to and from our cars exposes us to the delicious but deleterious effects of the outside world?
“With the weather improving and us moving into summer, where the sun is higher in the sky, we’re outside more, exposed to drying wind and the sun,” says Dean Bair, MD, of Bair Medical Spa in Albuquerque. “At altitude, there is less atmosphere between us and the sun. Those two things––being outside and at altitude––make sun damage more intense than in other places. And we’re in the desert, where everything is dehydrated, including your skin. It’s a double whammy.”
Dr. Bair, an active outdoorsman, triathlete, backpacker and runner, also points out some not-so-obvious effects of outdoor activities. You sweat and get dirty. The grime impacts your skin and clogs your pores. You get scraped, bruised and cut. Dean says most skin damage occurs by age 40.
“My mantra is sunscreen all the time. I tell people don’t walk to your mailbox or get in your car without putting sunscreen on. You get UV radiation through the windshield. We see much more skin damage on the left side of people than on right, because of driving,” the doctor continues.
Fun fact: for every 1,000 feet above sea level, UVA radiation increases by 10 percent. You do the math.
Jan and Jack Kerr, owners and aestheticians of Seventh Ray Skin Care in Santa Fe, have some specific recommendations, about how to apply sunscreen properly. But first, a primer on sunscreen versus sunblock: Sunscreen has chemicals that convert the sun’s UV rays into less harmful light. Don’t buy the hype of a sunscreen touting an SPF (sun protection factor) over 50, either. The FDA recently reviewed and changed its recommendations about sunscreens, prohibiting the advertising of SPFs higher than 50, because it simply isn’t true. In simple terms, if unprotected skin is exposed and starts to turn red in 10 minutes, then SPF 12 will extend that 10 minutes 12 times (up to 120 minutes). However, SPF isn’t an exact science; many factors can extend or reduce the time a sunscreen will work––your particular skin, your activities, whether you use other sun protection like clothing, hats, etc.
Sunblock is an alternative; it actually prevents the UV rays from hitting your skin. These contain zinc dioxide and/or titanium dioxide. Sunblocks today contain smaller particles, so they aren’t so obvious (think the white-nose look). Some even use tint to blend with your skin tone. Powdered and liquid makeups often contain sun-blocking ingredients, too.
Back to the Kerrs and their sunscreen application recommendations. “Sunscreens have to be applied and absorbed into the skin at least 10 to 20 minutes before sun exposure. We recommend using a minimum of 30-SPF sunscreen, and reapplying every 2 to 3 hours. Sunscreen ingredients absorb the sun’s radiation, and like a sponge absorbing water, they reach saturation. Most sunscreens are designed for 1 to 2 hours efficiency. After that, they are only one-third as protective,” the Kerrs say.
Okay, enough about sunscreen. What else can we do to keep our skin healthy in the increasingly obvious inferno we live in? The Kerrs recommend wide-brimmed hats, long sleeves and pants to keep sun off skin, and to stay out of the sun generally between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense. “Some clothing even has SPF ratings; they are made with fabrics that block the sun’s rays,” Jack says. “We see a lot more biking and running people using this clothing.”
Eating a healthy diet full of antioxidants that nourish the organ that is your skin; drinking lots of water (a minimum of 64 ounces) every day; and avoiding too much alcohol (which dehydrates you) is also helpful. “Water is very important for skin health––it’s one way the skin protects itself. Of the 64 ounces of water you should drink every day, only two goes to your skin. It’s easy to get dehydrated here without feeling thirsty. Drink a lot of water when you’re outside––several gulps every 15 minutes.”
Okay, now that we’ve come this far, are we doing all we can to protect and prevent further sun damage? What’s a girl or a guy to do about those sunspots and wrinkles?
Dr. Bair says there are some good, clinically effective skincare products for home use that can help reverse some of the sun damage and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. For example, one might gently exfoliate with a brush like the Clarisonic, then apply a moisturizer that contains hyaluronic acid—the substance in all our tissues that holds moisture. Exfoliation (removing the dead top layer of skin) allows the skin to better absorb moisturizers, as it removes make up, dirt and sweat.
Other methods to reduce wrinkles and dark spots require visiting professionals like Dr. Bair or the Kerrs. Photo treatments use specific light spectrums that are attracted to dark pigments. The pigments are destroyed and exfoliated off within 5 to 7 days. (Here’s the caveat, though––unless you prevent further sun exposure, the spots come right back.) Mild or more powerful chemical peels can also strip away the top layer of skin. When combined with serums and other products that support your skin’s health, dark spots and wrinkles can be reduced.
Wrinkles themselves can be lessened by injections of collagen or substances that stimulate collagen and cell production. These definitely require a trained professional’s assistance. Both the Kerrs and Bair Medical have other treatments that can improve the look and feel of your skin. Visit bairmedicalspa.com and seventhrayskincare.com for their specific treatments and products.
So drink lots of water, eat a healthy diet, wear protective clothing and hats, slather on the sunscreen, exfoliate and apply a good moisturizer with hyaluronic as one of the top ingredients. Avoid alcohol and other things that dehydrate (like caffeine). It’s not too late to repair some of the damage, and you can definitely improve the appearance of your skin. You may never get back that unblemished, unwrinkled skin you had when you were a baby, but hey, that bronze glow is passé anyway.
Seventh Ray Skin Care is located at 2019 Galisteo Street in Santa Fe. 505.982.9865. seventhrayskincare.com.
Bair Medical Spa is located at 8810 Holly Avenue NE in Albuquerque. 505.881.4913. bairmedicalspa.com.
Story by Kelly Koepke