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What Is Sun Damage?

what is sun damage

What is sun damage, exactly? You probably associate sun damage with blistering, red sunburns, but there’s a bigger story. Below, we break down what sun damage is, all the forms of it and why it’s essential to protect your skin from an early age.

First, a mini science lesson about the cells in your skin…

Your skin is your largest organ and it contains lots of layers that each serve a purpose. The epidermis is the topmost layer of your skin, and within it, there are five layers. The innermost layer, the stratum basale, is the “base” layer of your skin and it’s where new skin cells are constantly being “born” and replicated.

“It typically takes about two weeks for a new cell to move its way up before being shed from the skin‘s surface,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Think of this process as your skin’s way of naturally exfoliating.

When you’re young, your skin cells replicate and shed at a much faster rate. Remember how much faster scrapes would heal when you were a kiddo? As you get older, your skin cells take longer to shed (which is why you may use products to help speed up that process, like retinol and AHAs). “After the age of 30, skin cell turnover starts to slow down, skin cells cannot repair themselves from environmental damage as well as they used to, and the skin’s natural antioxidant defenses decline,” says Dr. Zeichner.

What does this have to do with sun damage?

Great question! Unprotected skin exposure to the sun and other forms of damaging UV light negatively affects the health of your skin cells and how they replicate. “New skin cells are usually young and healthy but can become damaged from environmental exposure, like ultraviolet light,” says Dr. Zeichner. “UV light can stimulate pigment production within the skin cells and even damage DNA, which can lead to the development of skin cancers.”

While you probably didn’t cause too much damage from a sunburn here or there when you were young, repeated sunburns cause longterm damage to your skin cells that can be dangerous. “The skin can heal from mild sunburns, and usually damaged cells are replaced by newer ones, but any sunburn means that there has been some degree of skin damage.” says Dr. Zeichner. “More severe burns, especially those that blister, increase your risk for developing skin cancer in the future.”

And if you’re fond of going outside to “get some color” or a “light tan,” be aware that those sun sessions cause skin cell damage, too. We asked a collection of derms to weigh in on myths about tanning and one of the big ones was the false belief that you can tan as much as you want, as long as your skin doesn’t get sunburned. Here’s how Dr. Lynn Klein puts it: “You can’t get ‘a little bit’ of color and expect yourself to be safe. Sun damage, even if it isn’t immediately visible, adds up over time and can manifest itself on your skin later in life, contributing to aging, as well as skin cancer.”

That’s the thing about sun damage… it accumulates over the years, even when you don’t “see” it, making it super important to start a daily sunscreen habit young to keep your cells healthy for longer. “Cells become cancerous when their DNA becomes damaged enough that they cannot control their replication. The more UV light your cells are exposed to, the more DNA damage and the more likely you are to develop a skin cancer,” says Dr. Zeichner.

The forms of sun damage:

The four big forms of sun damage you should be aware of are UVA rays, UVB rays, blue light and IRA. While you’re exposed to all of these forms of light through sunlight, you can also be exposed to blue light and IRA through other sources, like your computer and your hair dryer. UVA and UVB rays are the only rays that can contribute to skin cancer while all four of them can contribute to photoaging, i.e. wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.

To help break it down, check out the chart below for the forms of light and how they can affect unprotected skin:

How to protect yourself from sun damage:

You probably saw this coming, but the best way to protect yourself from sun damage is to wear sunscreen, every single day. But you shouldn’t wear just any sunscreen. You’ll want to make sure that your sunscreen is broad spectrum (meaning it protects from UVA and UVB rays), is at least SPF 30 and also helps protect you from other forms of light, like blue light and IRA. Most importantly, look for a sunscreen that you actually want to wear every day.

Our best-selling, completely invisible Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40 is a perfect choice for everyday protection from UVA/UVB rays, blue light and IRA. It goes on clear on ever single skin tone and leaves a light natural finish so it works on all skin types, without leaving a greasy residue. Bonus: If you love wearing makeup, Unseen works as an amazing primer for foundation or CC cream.

sunscreen options

If you’re looking for a 100% mineral option, Zincscreen SPF 40 is a daily lotion that’s made with non-nano zinc oxide, so it’s safe for the most sensitive of skin. And if you’re active most days, look no further than our original formula, PLAY Everyday Lotion SPF 50. It’s water- and sweat-resistant for up to 80 minutes and won’t run into your eyes.

And as we mentioned before, it’s super important to start an SPF habit early, so you’ll want to get your kiddos in the habit as soon as you can. We developed a super clean, pediatrician-tested line of 100% mineral sunscreen for babies and toddlers called Sunnyscreen SPF 50. It comes in three formats — a spray, a stick and a lotion — so you have options to make application easy peasy. Once your kiddo reaches the age of seven, they can graduate to PLAY Everyday Lotion.

+ Have more questions about what sun damage is and how to prevent it? Leave them in the comments and we’ll answer them!