Light and Lively
Posted On Oct 13, 2016
Have you heard? Pale is the new tan. Here’s the latest on how to save the skin you’re in.
By Amy Zavatto
We’ve all done it—those marathon sun-worship sessions during which we expose our naked, vulnerable epidermis to the warm rays of the summer sun to attain the ultimate bronzed glow. You know, the shade that screams sexy, sun-kissed health? It’s a national pastime, slathered in ceremony, and so many of us feel it’s our birthright to bake ourselves to a delicious golden-brown. But what if we told you that tanning isn’t your skin’s way of purporting inner and outer wellbeing: It’s an out and out cry for help.
“What a tan really represents is a sign of DNA damage,” insists Dr. Elizabeth Hale, clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Center. “Our body mounts a tanning response as a sort of stress response; it’s a defense mechanism. In the eighties, you often heard the words ‘healthy tan.’ There’s no such thing!” Enlightened advocates are waging a national campaign to help everyone—including those of us who feel stale in our natural state of pale—to learn to love our natural complexion, be it light, dark, or in between. In 2008, the Skin Cancer Foundation launched a groundbreaking public service message, smartly entitled “Go With Your Own Glow,” to encourage women (and men, for that matter) to celebrate and protect their natural skin tone. The foundation wants sun lovers of all ages to realize the following: Tanning is neither fashionable nor flattering, and is more or less obsolete as a lifestyle. Could this be the understatement of the summer?
Sun damage isn’t something that happens overnight from one bad burn. It’s cumulative. So, all those long afternoons at the height of the sun’s heat, slathering your skin in baby oil by the pool, or carelessly eschewing sunscreen on the beach in your twenties add up—or just forgetting to re-apply; each of these acts is one of health and beauty self-sabotage. “It’s that first, early overexposure until now that’s the problem,” says Dr. Doris Day, a New York City dermatologist and author of Forget the Facelift. “When I treat a woman in her sixties with wrinkles and brown spots who says, ‘I’m never in the sun,’ I say, ‘Well, maybe you’re not anymore—this damage is from 20 or 30 years ago.’”
But that’s not all. Every time you go out in the sun without applying an SPF product of at least 15 in winter and 30 in summer (and not just to your face, but all exposed skin, be it hands, arms, neck, shoulders, or shins) and taking other proper precautions, like wearing a hat or walking on the shady side of the street, you’re adding to that damage.
“Most sun exposure is incidental, so contrary to what people think it doesn’t just happen during the summertime and on the beach,” says Hale. “Most is from the act of daily living.” That’s right—be it an outdoor break from the office on your lunch hour, a jog around the park, a walk with the family on a weekend afternoon, or simply driving in your car during the daytime, not applying products with UV protection is speeding up the aging process and piling on to the wrinkles, sun spots, dullness, and sagging that sun damage can cause. “The number one anti-aging secret is sunscreen. Before you spend money on peptides and stem-cell treatments, think about it,” Hale continues. “I won’t even perform these procedures until a patient commits to using daily sunscreen because if you keep baking in the sun, it’s like stopping a moving train.”
Some of Dr. Hale’s patients argue that they need the sun exposure to adjust a deficiency in vitamin D. However, she says, this is simply untrue. If you’re worried about not getting enough vitamin D in your day-to-day activities, exposing your skin to that burning orb in the sky isn’t going to make much of a difference. “That’s just plain old false,” says Farah Ahmed, chair of the Personal Care Products Council sunscreen committee in Washington, D.C. “To the extent that someone is deficient, you should get vitamin D through your diet. The American Academy of Dermatologists all agree: UV rays are cancer causing. It’s irrefutable science.”
“The only way to ensure 100 percent blockage is to be in a dark room. When it’s cloudy or it’s the middle of winter, UV rays still come through, and penetrate windows as well, and that can cause damage to the skin over the years,” says Ahmed. “There’s a compelling photo of a truck driver in his sixties who’s been on the road for 30-plus years. The left side of his face looks 20 years older than the right because of sun exposure when driving.”
And that’s merely the vanity factor of unprotected sun exposure. The real danger is in the DNA damage.
Skin cancer occurs when dangerous ultra-violet radiation from the sun or a tanning bed (not that you should be using such archaic instruments of skin torture!) causes DNA cellular damage that can’t quite repair itself, and also kicks off a maelstrom of mutations, in which the damaged skin cells multiply rapidly, forming malignant tumors. “We know that up to 90 percent of skin cancer is due to UV exposure, and I’d say at this point it’s the number one diagnosed cancer in the U.S. now—more than lung, prostate, breast, and colon combined,” Hale continues. “Fortunately, many of these cases are curable when detected early.”
With such an arsenal of scientific proof, it seems high time for that notion of a healthy tan to become a historical flash-in-the-pan footnote. And not a UV ray too soon. “We want protecting your skin to be as instinctive as wearing a seatbelt,” says Ahmed. “Burns we recognize and associate with damage, but tanning is in fact damage to your skin. Regardless of your skin color.”
Ahmed brings up an important point: It’s not just the extremely fair who are susceptible to damage from the sun; all skin colors need protection and care. “Sun damage is an equal-opportunity offender. Skin damage occurs in skin of all colors,” she continues. “The American Academy of Dermatologists and the Skin Cancer Foundation have each been vocal about the fact that sun protection is important for all ethnicities, regardless of skin tone. When it comes to beauty and age perception, it’s not the color of your skin, it’s the evenness and luminosity of your skin tone. And that’s shown to be true around the globe.”
Once you learn to be comfortable with your natural tone, be it the palest of them all or ebony as evening, you’ll find that inner glow will shine on the outside, too. Part of the Skin Cancer Foundation’s campaign has been to loop in well-known, visible celebrities to help get the message out, like style tastemaker Simon Doonan, who wisely points out cross-cultural examples of high-profile women with enviable skin in an interview on their website: “Tilda Swinton is pale and interesting. Michelle Obama is luscious and well-moisturized. Lucy Liu is a flawless porcelain doll.” Each perfect examples of stunning, successful women who are obviously comfortable in their own skin.
“Your skin is a powerful and accurate reflector of your inner health, both mentally and physically,” says Dr. Day. “As a dermatologist, I consider myself a medical detective and a doctor of self-esteem. When you feel your best, you look your best, and that has a powerful impact on your whole being.”
The good news is that it’s not too late to coax that glow from your body’s largest organ, and reduce your risk of skin cancer to boot. In Australia, the skin-cancer capital of the world, a decade-long study was conducted on 1,600 adults ages 25 to 65, with half told to go about their usual daily habits, using or not using sunscreen; the other half was to follow a strict and careful regimen of appropriate daily sunscreen application. The latter group was found to have an overwhelming 73 percent reduction in invasive melanomas, not to mention a reduction in brown spots and other signs of aging.
“People think, ‘It’s too late! The damage is done!’ But it’s not too late. It’s an ongoing process,” says Hale. And it’s become easier and easier to adapt SPF application into an otherwise healthy daily skin regimen. Of course, if you plan to hit the beach or the pool, applying and re-applying sunscreen often and from head to toe is absolutely vital, as is wearing a hat, seeking shade, covering up when you can, and avoiding the sun during the hottest points of the late morning and early to mid-afternoon—all easy enough regimens to adapt. Even easier, though, is finding great products to boost your UV beauty shield all the time. It’s actually a lot harder to find stores and cosmetic counters that don’t offer a bevy of beauty products with a decent level of SPF these days, from lipstick to powder to foundation. And if you somehow had the notion that those products weren’t as strong as, say, the sunscreen in your beach tote, take joy—they are.
“That SPF 15 in your foundation is the same as what’s in a beach product,” says Ahmed. “It’s no different. Beauty products are required to go through the same rigors of testing and labeling. They provide serious health benefits.”
Which products are the best? According to Ahmed, whichever one you put on every day. “I think it’s important to have confidence in your own skin color and take an interest in skin health and what it means to protect yourself from any damage. In the end, prevention is the best medicine.”