Sun Damaged Skin: What it is, how you can prevent it, and how you can repair it

We all know the uplifting sensation — stepping outside and feeling the warmth of the sun wrapped around us. But while the sun can be a source of energy and revitalization, it can also be the source of great damage to our skin and body, and as such, we must remain proactive in taking the necessary steps to avoid sun damaged skin.

Reference Lab

JUL 01, 2021

01What is sun damaged skin [1]?

Sun damage is the consequence of exposing unprotected skin to the sun’s rays. Ultraviolet (UV) light is the primary component of sunlight that can cause extensive DNA damage in our skin cells and should therefore be the main focus when it comes to protecting our skin.

There are two types of UV light that reach our skin and they can have differing, but equally damaging, effects:

  • UVA light damages every layer of our skin, including the skin’s blood supply and fibers that maintain our skin’s youthful appearance and texture
  • UVB light damages the epidermis, or the external layer of the skin, and causes extensive DNA and cellular damage at this level

One of the major effects of sun damage is the elevated activity of enzymes known as metalloproteinases (MMPs) in skin cells. When they are activated by UV radiation, MMPs break down collagen and other fibers located in the dermal layer. Without collagen, the skin’s structure begins to deteriorate and repair mechanisms gradually prove to be insufficient in a process termed “solar scarring”. This damage manifests as the physical symptoms we associate with photoaging, such as wrinkles and dryness[2].


02How does sun damage impact my health?

At the surface, sun damage causes wrinkles, a dry or leathery skin appearance, and a loss of skin elasticity. Over time, that damage can become compounded, with prolonged exposure contributing to the onset of precancerous spots and lesions[3]. Since skin is our natural protective barrier between our internal and external environments, the cumulative effects of sun damage can be devastating to our body’s overall well-being. Read more about the impact of skin health on overall health here.


Sun damaged skin = Photoaging

UV radiation is so detrimental to skin’s youthful appearance that dermatologists commonly refer to sun damage as photoaging. While chronologic aging results in finer wrinkles and loss of skin tautness, nearly 80 percent of the visible signs of aging, such as deeper wrinkles and blotched pigmentation, are a result of unprotected UV exposure[4]. One study even demonstrated that individuals with early signs of wrinkling had a four-times greater risk of developing melanoma than those without wrinkles[5].


03Which parts of my skin have the most sun damage?

The next time you look in the mirror, pay special attention to your face, neck, upper limbs and chest — these areas are more likely to be exposed to the sun, and are therefore the most common sites of sun damaged skin[6]. Signs of sun damage on the face, including wrinkles, pigmented spots, or dry patches, often serve as good early indicators of more general sun damage, as we are most likely to take a frequent look at this high-risk area.


I don’t see any visible signs of sun damage — does this mean my skin is healthy?

Not necessarily. Since the skin consists of multiple layers, any “invisible” damage accumulating at a deeper layer may not be visible just yet, but can still be just as dangerous. The dermis, which is a deeper layer of our skin, contains collagen and other elastic fibers that maintain skin integrity and youthfulness[7]. UVA radiation continuously harms and destroys these fibers, meaning the damage has already been accumulating for several years before it surfaces and becomes noticeable.

04How high is my risk of sun damaged skin?

Though susceptibility to UV rays is universal, the extent of sun damage is largely dependent on skin type, the duration of exposure, and your environment.


Skin type and sun damage

As a whole, there is a direct correlation between lighter skin tones and a higher incidence of sun damaged skin and skin cancer. One study even found that individuals with lighter skin were about 70 times more likely to develop skin cancer than individuals with darker skin tones.

This is largely due to the photoprotective effect of melanin, which is the pigment responsible for skin color. Melanin is capable of not only dissipating UV rays, but also minimizing the ability of UV radiation to penetrate beyond the outermost skin layer[9].

When assessing overall risk of sun damaged skin, you can follow a dermatologist-approved system known as the Fitzpatrick skin phototype scale. This scale takes into account a person’s genetic background, skin sensitivity, and exposure to harmful stimuli when determining overall risk[10]. Typically, those who have a skin phototype of I - III are at a higher risk of developing damaged skin in response to UV exposure.


Longer day in the sun? Increased photodamage to the skin.

Whether you have stayed outdoors for hours on end, or given in to your child’s plea of “just five more minutes!” at the pool, your risk of photodamage has likely increased. And anyone who has accidentally fallen asleep while tanning or spent a bit too long at the beach can probably relate to the pain and discomfort of the most immediate reaction to UV radiation: a sunburn.

At the surface, a sunburn may appear to be a temporary injury, a patch of red, tender skin that will disappear by morning without a trace after the application of a cream for sun damaged skin. However, the molecular effects are undeniable: instant damage to blood vessels, noticeable changes of skin coloration and texture, and loss of moisture in the top layer of the skin. The change in skin color, also known as tanned skin, is further due to the overproduction of melanin by skin cells, in an effort to dissipate more UV rays[11].

When this damage accumulates, it contributes to long-lasting effects including higher susceptibility to bruising and skin cancer[12]. In general, longer and more excessive sun exposure is correlated with the onset of a stronger inflammatory response linked with photoaging. [13]


Am I still at risk of sun damaged skin if I don’t spend a lot of time outdoors?

While direct exposure to sunlight at peak hours is commonly known to be the biggest perpetrator of sun damaged skin, there are other ways in which your skin could be accumulating this damage:

  • Tanning beds: Though not in direct sunlight, you may want to reconsider that upcoming tanning bed appointment. Tanning beds still place your skin in direct contact with UV radiation, which results in similar, if not more adverse, damage to your epidermal and dermal skin layers. In fact, tanning beds, which typically emit mostly UVA rays, can be nearly three times more intense than that of natural sunlight[14]!
  • Outdoors, even on cloudy days or in the winter: Just because you can’t see the sun, does not mean it’s not damaging your skin cells as it would on a sunny day.
    Whether it’s just an atypical summer day or an ordinary day in winter, not even the darkest clouds can be completely effective against the sun’s harmful rays — but you’re not alone if you thought they could[15]. New research investigating the ability of UV radiation to penetrate clouds and burn skin even on cooler days has proven that yes, you need sunscreen during winter.
  • And yes, even indoors: Ever embarked on a long car ride or sat by a sunny window indoors and noticed a slight tan or sunburn creeping up? Turns out, you may have experienced sun damage, since more than half of UVA rays from sunlight are able to penetrate glass[16]. While it may seem obvious that sunscreen is a must for any outdoor activities, it’s less intuitive but just as necessary for a day indoors.

If I avoid sunlight, could I end up with a vitamin D deficiency?

A commonly held belief is that without proper amounts of sun exposure, our bodies won’t produce sufficient levels of vitamin D. It’s true that our bodies require this essential vitamin for bone health and maintenance and are able to produce it naturally from the interaction between UVB rays and the proteins and cholesterol in our skin cells[17]. So how can you both protect your skin from sun damage and avoid a vitamin D deficiency?

Thankfully, modern day society has recognized this compromise and as a result, has fortified many of the most commonly eaten foods with sufficient daily levels of vitamin D. Labeled foods such as fortified milk and salmon contain sufficient quantities of Vitamin D and can also be replaced or paired with Vitamin D supplements to fulfill your daily intake requirement[18]. So even if you want to enjoy that cold glass of fortified orange juice on the patio rather than on the sofa, you should still take steps to protect your skin from sun damage and rest easy knowing that you don’t have to compromise on your skin’s health in order to receive the benefits of the sunshine vitamin.

05 How can I prevent sun damage?

Undeniably, and unsurprisingly, applying sunscreen is one of the best ways of protecting from sun damaged skin.


What does SPF mean?

When selecting a sunscreen, one of your first questions should be, “How effective is this sunscreen at actually protecting me from the harmful effects of the sun?” This can be answered by a quick glance at the sun protection factor, or SPF, that emblazons the outer packaging of nearly every sunscreen container.

SPF is a measure of how effective a sunscreen is at protecting your skin against UVB rays, and sometimes UVA rays as well. Generally speaking, the higher the SPF, the more protection that sunscreen offers[19]. Of course, the level of protection should be estimated with consideration of each individual’s unique susceptibility to UV rays and sun damage, as well as how effectively and frequently you apply sunscreen prior to and during your time in the sun.


What should I look for when selecting a sunscreen?[20]

Given the large market for sunscreen currently available, there are several factors you should consider when choosing the right sunscreen for your skin:[21]

  • SPF greaterthan or equal to 30: If boosting your protection from UV rays by a factor of 30 was as easy as rubbing lotion on your skin, would you do it? Turns out it is! Choosing a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher does just this and has been found to be the most effective skin care for sun damage.

    Hearing this, you may be inclined to reach for that bottle of SPF 100 sunscreen - but this might not be absolutely necessary. Sunscreens advertised as having an SPF as high as 100 are often misleading, as there is limited data proving that these products offer more photoprotection than sunscreens with SPF 30. In general, a sunscreen with:

    • SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays
    • SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays
    • SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays
    • SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays

    If you apply frequently enough, you can feel confident in your purchase of an SPF 30 sunscreen.

  • Protection from both UVA and UVB rays: Since sunlight contains both UVA and UVB radiation, and each has a uniquely damaging effect on the skin, it is important to use a sunscreen that protects against both types of rays. In order to identify this feature, look for a label of “broad spectrum”, along with a description of how much protection is offered against each; if the protection against UVA rays is less than one-third the protection against UVB rays, put the product back on the shelf!
  • Resistant to washout and water: Select a sunscreen that is advertised as “water resistant” or offering “water protection”. Not all sunscreens will offer this added benefit, and the ones that do will either offer protection for 40 minutes or 80 minutes. Choose the option that best suits the activity you are engaging in that day — 40 minutes of resistance would be sufficient for a quick splash in the pool, whereas 80 minutes of resistance with reapplication would complement a full day of aquatic activity.
OneFact UV radiation, the rays found in sunlight, are so devastating to living cells, that they are actually used to disinfect medical equipment in hospitals!


What is the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreen?[22]

As you look for your ideal sunscreen that meets the criteria above, you may find yourself deciding between a mineral sunscreen and chemical sunscreen. Though both are effective against UV radiation, they differ in their mechanism and the ingredients they are made of.

Chemical sunscreens are composed of chemical ingredients such as avobenzone and octocrylene that are able to be absorbed by the skin. Due to this characteristic, chemical sunscreens battle UV radiation deeper in the skin than do mineral sunscreens.

Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, are typically composed of minerals such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that stay at the surface of the skin following application. They are also called physical sunscreens because they form a durable, physical barrier against UV radiation. Since mineral sunscreens prevent UV rays from penetrating into deeper skin layers, they are typically recommended for daily use. And due to the lack of synthetic substances, they are not only better for our health but the environment as well!


How do I correctly apply sunscreen?[23]

Now that you’ve selected the perfect sunscreen for yourself, follow these guidelines to ensure you are maximizing its effectivenes:

  • The 15-minute rule for application: Your beach day is finally here, and you’re going through a last minute check before leaving: towel, snacks, flip-flops...and sunscreen! In fact, sunscreen should be applied at least 15 minutes prior to exposure in order for you to receive the maximum protection and prevent sunburn in your first few minutes outside.
  • A “shot glass” for the whole body: A frequently asked question is, “I applied sunscreen, why did I still get burned?” In addition to breaking the aforementioned “15-minute rule”, a common cause of this is failing to apply a sufficient amount of sunscreen. In fact, most individuals don’t even apply half of the FDA-recommended amount of 2 mg of sunscreen for every square centimeter of skin. This roughly translates to one ounce, or an entire shot glass, of sunscreen for exposed regions of skin throughout the body[24].
  • Not covered? Apply!: The general rule-of-thumb to keep in mind is: if anyone can see your uncovered skin, so can the sun and its harmful rays. Any skin that is not covered by clothing should receive a generous layer of sunscreen. Notably, this is helpful to prevent sun damage to the face, ears and extremities, but is just as important to areas not visible to you or hard to reach, including your back and neck.
  • The 2-hour rule for re-application: As much as it is essential to prepare for a trip outdoors by applying sunscreen 15 minutes prior to exposure, it is just as important to reapply the protective spray or lotion every two hours. In fact, one of the most common reasons for sunburn is failure to reapply throughout a lengthy day outside.


06 Can you repair sun damaged skin?

Explain the data OS-01 repairs cellular damage from UVB radiation by 39% in 30-year-old skin and 21% in 79-year-old skin. We compared levels of cellular damage in skin cells that were exposed to UV radiation then treated with OS-01 or nothing ... and the results were groundbreaking. We observed significantly reduced UVB-induced cellular damage in skin cells after they were treated with OS-01. This is revolutionary for your skin health, because it means that OS-01 can actually repair damage done by the strongest natural DNA aggressor known to man, UV rays. The takeaway? In combination with sunscreen, OS-01 offers a comprehensive defense and repair strategy against UV damage.

Yes, here’s how to reverse sun damage

The proprietary peptide in OneSkin’s flagship product, OS-01 Topical Supplement, was able to repair cellular damage from UVB radiation by 39% in 30-year-old skin and by 21% in 79-year-old skin.

After exposing skin cells to UVB rays, OneSkin’s scientists compared the levels of cellular damage following no treatment or treatment with OS-01. In both cell samples, OS-01 significantly reduced UVB-induced damage — a groundbreaking victory for repairing sun damaged skin! This means that OS-01 is effective at repairing damage from one of the strongest and most aggressive natural perpetrators of DNA damage that we know of, and combined with sunscreen, OS-01 provides a comprehensive defense and repair strategy for sun damaged skin.

Mechanism of Reversing or Repairing Sun Damage

Another effective strategy to repair or reverse sun damage to the skin is to utilize antioxidants that target the build-up of, and prevent the adverse consequences of, MMPs.


The Role of Antioxidants

As MMPs continue to have adverse consequences on our dermal cellular framework, there is also a noticeable build-up of toxic molecules known as free-radicals inside our skin cells. A UV-induced accumulation of free-radicals further contributes to physical signs of aging. [25]

In order to counter this, using a supplement containing Vitamin C or other antioxidants can be immensely beneficial. Vitamin C is our body’s natural antioxidant, and is very effective against free-radicals caused by sun damage. One study even found that, in combination with sunscreen, Vitamin C, amongst other antioxidants, was effective at minimizing an increase in MMPs following photodamage.[26]

07 Conclusion

  • Photoaging, or sun damage to the skin, is caused by UV radiation in sunlight.
  • Sun damage to the face, neck, and extremities are common due to being directly exposed to sunlight.
  • Skin type, the length of time you are exposed to UV rays, your environment, and personal habits all determine your susceptibility to sun damage.
  • Sunscreen is an effective, and necessary, tool against sun damage. When looking for sunscreen, pay attention to factors such as SPF, water resistance, and ingredients.
  • Sun damage can be repaired and reversed with the right routine, and OS-01 is here to help!

Reviewed by Alessandra Zonari, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) and Co-Founder of OneSkin

Alessandra earned her Master’s degree in stem cell biology, and her PhD in skin regeneration and tissue engineering at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil in collaboration with the 3B’s Research Group in Portugal. Alessandra did a second post-doctoral at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. She is a co-inventor of three patents and has published 20 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals.

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