Ageless advise: sun exposure

Have you ever looked in the mirror and noticed the ponem (face) your bubbe used to pinch has drastically changed? Gone is the clear skin atop apple-shaped cheeks, replaced by dull, dry skin peppered with age spots and melasma (that beautiful “mask of pregnancy!”)

Many of us wake up one morning later in life and feel like our skin has changed overnight. Brown spots and age spots seemingly appear out of nowhere. What may seem like it is the result of a recent suntan is actually the appearance of deep sun damage accumulated over decades of exposure – starting when we were tots playing at the Bronx Zoo; to the teen years of baby oil and iodine, (wonder no more how I know about that combo!) and on to our use of tanning beds and our need to come back from any sunny vacation with a tan.

The brown damage we see on our skin is the result of repeated exposure to the sun and stimulation of the cells that make melanin – thus producing a brown spot. These spots can be prevented, managed and cured. 

First: Prevention. The truth hurts: There is no such thing as “safe” sun, including tanning beds. The only sunscreen I use and recommend is clear zinc oxide (such as Epionce SPF 30 or 50). Zinc is the only ingredient in sunscreen that provides 100% protection against both UVA and UVB rays. The good news is that we can now get clear zinc oxide – we no longer have to look like the Jones Beach lifeguard with the white stripes. Zinc reflects the sun off our skin rather than absorbing the sunlight. Even a baby can safely wear zinc sunscreen. I recently took my own “babies,” now 14 and 17, on a sunny vacation and despite the protests, I slathered them with zinc sunscreen before they ventured outside. It was well worth the complaining to avoid the agony of a teenage burn!

Second: Management. Once damage has occurred, you have several options to manage mild sun damage (don’t forget to use a zinc sunscreen daily to prevent future damage.) You can lighten some melasma and brown spots with a variety of prescription and over-the-counter products.  You also can use medical peels and medical microdermabrasion to keep the discoloration at a minimum. I recommend wearing a liquid foundation daily to give your face an even tone and protect your face from further UV radiation (my personal favorite is Lancome – it makes your skin look and feel like velvet).

Finally: “Cure.” The definitive treatment for removing sun damage is a variety of devices including noninvasive, no-downtime lasers such as Intense Pulsed Light, which lifts the damage in a safe, effective way, leaving you with dewy, spotless skin. You can also get more aggressive treatment of sun damage with an ablative laser, such as the Erbium Pixel Laser or the CO2 Fractionated Laser, which involves downtime. Lasers are highly effective, but have associated risks that need to be discussed with your health care provider.  

In summary, the sun and its damage should be taken very seriously. It is the number one cause of skin aging, and melanoma is sharply on the rise each year. Always get an annual skin check up with your doctor, and use the above tips to keep damage to a minimum. Even if you envy the deep, brown tan of another, you will be the envy of all when you age gracefully with creamy, spotless skin!

Elizabeth VanderVeer, M.D. is a board-certified internist and president/medical director at VanderVeer Center. A native Oregonian, she is a fourth-generation doctor who has dedicated her practice exclusively to aesthetics for many years and specializes in non-surgical cosmetic medicine. Dr. VanderVeer is a published author, and a sought after international lecturer as well as a national trainer for numerous industry leaders.

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