Kathriona Devereux: The perils of a suntan

In her weekly column Kathriona Devereux looks at the effects the sun can have on our skin
Kathriona Devereux: The perils of a suntan

A U.S trucker who drove for 28 years and suffered severe asymmetrical sun damage as a result

“WHY are you in the sun? You will never ever tan,” pronounced the bronzed Swedish doctor. “You have Type 1 skin. You will NEVER tan”

His deadpan diagnosis of my pale skin was the death knell to my sunbathing days.

A few years ago, I was on a boat trip in the Philippines with an international collection of backpackers when the good doctor shared his medical opinion.

Per and Ana, the Swedish doctor and his wife, were nut brown after weeks of backpacking. I was slathered in factor 50 sunscreen, wearing a hat and trying not to get burned.

I found his definitive determination that I would never tan quite liberating. Just get out of the sun.

I have since avoided so many sunburns; occasions where I missed a bit of my shoulder blade when applying sunscreen or forgot to reapply sunscreen after a swim. Staying in the shade avoids a whole load of worry — and peeling skin.

I recently took the Irish Cancer Society’s (surprisingly humorous) online quiz ‘What type of skin do you have?’, which pronounced that I actually have Type II skin — more Saoirse Ronan that Nicole Kidman, but still very pale.

The advice for people like me, and you my fellow Type II readers, is to seek the shade when outside whenever you can. Cover up by wearing clothes that cover as much skin as possible and wear a hat and sunglasses. Slap on SPF 30 sunscreen or higher on exposed skin.

The lure of the sun and an all over tan is still attractive to many. People don’t heed the warnings around the sun and skin cancer is the most common cancer in Ireland — 11,000 new cases were detected in Ireland in 2015.

Sunscreen is marketed as something that allows us to play safely in the sun, but perhaps more people would be slapping it on if it was marketed as an anti-ageing treatment.

On those backpacking trips in Asia I was initially surprised at the lengths women went to avoid sun exposure — even wearing face masks, socks and gloves at the beach. They had a short term goal of avoiding a tan, but they reaped the rewards in later life with unwrinkled and unblemished complexions.

In Vietnam, I regularly used a parasol to shield myself from the sun but I haven’t had the confidence to do the same strolling down Patrick Street on hotter days.

Dermatologists classify ageing into two categories — intrinsic ageing and extrinsic ageing.

Intrinsic aging is the natural aging process that takes place over the years, regardless of any outside influences.

After the age of 20, a person produces about 1% less collagen in the skin each year. As a result, the skin becomes thinner and more fragile with age.

There is also diminished functioning of the sweat and oil glands, less elastin production which supplies skin elasticity and rebound, and less glycosaminoglycan or GAGs which keep the skin hydrated.

Wrinkle formation as a result of intrinsic aging is inevitable, but it will be slight.

Extrinsic aging occurs as a result of sun and environmental damage, particularly smoking and exposure to pollution.

Extrinsic aging shows up as thickening of the outer layer of the epidermis, precancerous changes such as lesions called actinic keratosis, freckle and sun spot formation, and exaggerated loss of collagen, elastin, and GAGs.

All these can give the skin the appearance of roughness, uneven tone, brown patches, thin skin and deep wrinkles.

As with many other aspects of the human body, prevention is better than cure. Minimising sun exposure is key to minimising wrinkles. Sun protection against both UVA and UVB rays is important 365 days a year.

UVB is the sun’s radiation that causes burns and it can’t pass through glass or windows. UVA can pass through glass and cause lots of damage. People tend to age asymmetrically and UVA and driving can be to blame.

In Ireland, people have more damage on the right hand side of their faces because we drive on the left and have the right side of our faces facing the window. While we drive about, the right hand side of our faces and our hands on the steering wheel are getting a big blast of UVA radiation.

The picture above of a U.S truck driver is a famous example of the damage UVA can do. He drove a truck for 28 years and suffered severe asymmetrical sun damage.

When I first read about him, I started keeping a tube of sunscreen permanently in my car to slather on for long journeys to keep the wrinkles at bay.

Many dermatologists say the best anti-ageing treatments are sunscreen in the morning and retinol cream at night.

Retinol been used for more than 30 years with a safe track record. Over time, retinol improves fine lines, the appearance of pores, precancerous changes, and brown spots.

Dermatologists prescribe sunscreen, retinol, vitamin C serums, hyaluronic acid and growth peptides as anti-ageing solutions, but if the skin has accrued a lot of damage over the years, there is only so much science can do to save face.

Unsurprisingly, there are scientific studies that show sleeping has a measurable anti-ageing effect on the skin. Beauty sleep is true! If only someone could invent eight hours sleep in a bottle — that is an anti-ageing product I would buy into.

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