Your most common sun-related skin concerns

Without protection from the sun’s rays – and, boy, do we have a lot of sun in SA – we can’t avoid noticeable changes to the skin. At best, these make us look old well before our time. At worst, they can be life-threatening. Best we take care…

Most signs we regard as skin ageing as well as skin cancer can all be traced to ultraviolet (UV) damage from sun exposure. Excessive exposure without protection damages human skin significantly. It can cause burning and even long-term changes to the structure of the skin.

Dr. Maureen Allem, founder and medical director of the Renewal Institute, is often asked for her number one anti-ageing tip. Without fail, her answer is ‘use sunscreen – every day!’.

If we protect ourselves from childhood, the visible signs of UV- or photoageing will show up much later, and we’ll look youthful for longer. For most South Africans, however, the reality is that the period we spend most outdoors is when we’re under 18 – because school, sport and summer holidays…

The good news, though, is that the earlier we start doing damage repair – by being sun smart first of all, and by using antioxidant-rich ‘medical’ skincare creams, created by and endorsed by dermatologists and aesthetic doctors, as well as more intense in-clinic treatments, the better our skin will look as we age.

So what are the telltale signs of UV damage on our skin?

  • The most obvious sign is sunburn. Make no mistake, this is an injury to your skin. You may only have painful reddening of the skin but, in severe cases, fluid-filled bumps or even large blisters can be seen. More than four blistering sunburns in childhood makes you a candidate for skin cancer too.
  • If you suffer from permanently dry skin, chances are you had a lot of unprotected sun exposure in your youth. Skin regularly exposed to the sun gradually loses moisture as well as natural lubricating oils, ending up dry, flaky and prematurely wrinkled.
  • While there’s no definitive way to avoid eventually ending up with fine wrinkles on your face, you’d probably like to delay the onset as long as you can – if you avoid the sun as much as possible, and use effective sun protection every time you go outside. You have to hope your mother was fanatical about ensuring that your skin was always protected, because sun damage starts from your very first exposure.
  • Freckles – very cute in the very young – are a sure sign of sun exposure, particularly in fair-skinned people. These typically flat beige or brown round spots may start out quite small. They are caused by an increase in melanin along with an increase in the total number of melanocytes, pigment-producing cells.
  • Dark marks and age spots, like freckles, are flat patches of darker pigmentation on your skin caused by an excess production of melanin. They may appear as early as your twenties, if there’s a hormonal connection (taking the pill, pregnancy, etc.), but they will definitely start cropping up after 40, and they’re likely to occur where there’s been excessive exposure to sun or tanning beds.
  • A leathery skin texture is most likely if you’re a sunbunny and if you’re a smoker, you get a double whammy. These both cause the skin to lose its ability to repair itself, resulting in a loss of very important elastin and collagen (those wonderful things that keep your skin young, smooth and springy).
  • Photo-ageing may also result in permanent changes to the structural collagen which supports the walls of the tiny blood vessels in the skin, making these blood vessels increasingly fragile and more likely to dilate, causing ‘broken capillaries’ and redness.
  • While blotchy skin can be caused by many things, including the use of harsh or fragranced products, over-exfoliating, excessive exercise or, sadly, too much red wine – one of the common causes is, of course, forgetting your sunscreen. If any of the other causes mentioned above also apply to you, the overall effect will be worsened by unprotected sun exposure.
  • Ever heard of actinic keratosis? It could be a tiny, rough bump or even a small patch of differently-coloured skin that just doesn’t go away. These occur after repeated or long-term exposure to the sun and need to be removed, as they are often a warning sign of the thing we all fear – skin cancer.

And the most worrying sign of all…

  • Skin cancer is an out-of-control growth of abnormal skin cells. Sometimes a genetic defect, it is most often caused by repeated damage to skin cells as a result of exposure to UV radiation. The unrepaired DNA damage in the cells triggers a mutation that causes skin cells to multiply rapidly and cause tumours. While some skin cancers have a limited potential to spread to other parts of the body, others, like melanoma, can quickly metastasise to other organs and can be life-threatening. Melanoma is most common among young people too. If you are an outdoorsy person, you should have an annual check-up to monitor your moles.

Please take note! Tanning beds are no safer than the sun – in fact, they may be worse, as you’re exposing yourself to pure UVA radiation (which reaches deep down into your skin cells). Also, if you have fair skin, this is inherited, but most skin cancers are not – so avoiding skin cancer is completely possible for almost everyone. 

To find out more about protection against the sun or to find suitable treatment solutions after the damage was done, visit Skin Renewal on www.skinrenewal.co.za or contact 0861 SKIN SA (754 672).