Sun Damaged Skin: What It Is, How You Can Prevent It, And How You Can Repair It

Sun Damaged Skin: What It Is, How You Can Prevent It, And How You Can Repair It

The feeling of warm sun on your skin might be your definition of bliss. But while you close your eyes and soak up those rays, your skin is crying out for help. Responsible for up to 90% of extrinsic aging, UV radiation is arguably the biggest threat your skin faces in your lifetime. Join us as we take a deep dive into all things UV damage and how you can protect your skin while still enjoying a life in the sun.

Reference Lab

JUL 01, 2021

01What is sun damaged skin?

Every time you step out into the sun without SPF, your skin is exposed to damaging ultraviolet (UV) light, a type of radiation that has been shown to cause extensive damage to human DNA. There are two major types of UV radiation with different but equally damaging effects:

  • UVA light damages every skin layer, including the deeper layers where the skin’s blood supply and structural fibers are created.
  • UVB light UVB light damages the outermost layer of the skin, the epidermis, and causes extensive DNA and cellular damage at this level.

When your skin is exposed to UV radiation, it activates enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), which break down collagen and other structural proteins located in the dermal layer. As MMPs increase, collagen levels decrease and the skin begins to show telltale signs of aging like wrinkles, sagging, and dryness.¹ Nearly 90% of the visible signs of aging are a result of unprotected UV exposure. ²

02How does sun damage impact my health?

While the visible effects of sun damage like wrinkles, dry skin, and sagging may be enough to scare most people into using sunscreen, the impacts of sun exposure actually go far beyond just surface-level appearances. Over time, prolonged sun exposure contributes to the onset of precancerous spots and lesions.³ In fact, early signs of photoaging may be an indication of more profound damage. One study found that people with early signs of wrinkling had a 4x greater risk of developing melanoma than those without wrinkles.⁴

Plus, because the skin is your body’s natural protective barrier against external aggressors like bacteria and carcinogens, the cumulative effects of sun damage can be devastating to your body’s overall well-being. With time, sun damage diminishes the integrity of this barrier, leaving the entire body more vulnerable. You can learn more about the impact of skin health on overall health here.

03Which parts of my skin have the most sun damage?

 The next time you look in the mirror, pay special attention to your face, neck, upper arms and chest — these areas are more likely to be exposed to the sun and the most common sites of sun damage.⁵

Don’t see any damage yet? That doesn’t mean it’s not there. UVA radiation continuously harms and destroys collagen in the dermis–one of the deeper layers of the skin. By the time this damage comes to the surface, it has already been accumulating for several years.

04How high is my risk of sun damage? 

While every person is vulnerable to the effects of UV radiation, the level of damage you receive is largely dependent on your skin tone and the duration of your exposure.

People with lighter skin tones experience higher incidences of sun damage and skin cancer. One study even found that people with lighter skin were about 70x more likely to develop skin cancer than people with darker skin tones. This is largely due to the photoprotective effects of melanin, the pigment responsible for skin color. Melanin is capable of not only dissipating UV rays, but also minimizing the penetration of UV radiation beyond the outermost skin layer.⁶ 

Longer periods of sun exposure are also correlated with a higher risk of sun damage. Prolonged exposure increases your risk of sunburn, which results in instant damage to blood vessels, noticeable changes of skin coloration and texture, and loss of moisture in the top layer of the skin. ⁷ When this damage accumulates, it contributes to long-lasting effects including higher susceptibility to bruising and skin cancer. ⁸ Plus, longer and more excessive sun exposure results in a stronger inflammatory response linked with photoaging.⁹ 

05How can I prevent sun damage? 

You might be surprised to know that sun exposure isn’t the biggest UV risk. Tanning beds are actually much worse. In fact, the UVA radiation in tanning beds can be nearly three times more intense than natural sunlight! ¹⁰

In addition to avoiding tanning beds, wearing sunscreen and limiting sun exposure are the best ways to prevent UV damage on a daily basis. While direct sun exposure in the middle of a summer day presents the highest risk to your skin, you’re still at risk on cloudy days. Clouds are not that effective at blocking UV radiation and you can still accumulate skin damage on cooler winter days. Even staying indoors isn’t enough. In fact, more than half of UVA rays in sunlight are able to penetrate glass. ¹¹

06What should I look for in sunscreen?  

SPF is a measure of how effective a sunscreen is at protecting your skin. Generally speaking, the higher the SPF, the more protection that sunscreen offers. Here are three things to look for when buying a sunscreen:

  • Broad Spectrum Protection: Since sunlight contains both UVA and UVB radiation, it’s important to use a sunscreen that protects against both types. Look for broad spectrum protection along with a description of how much protection is offered against each; if the protection against UVA rays is less than one-third of the protection against UVB rays, put the product back on the shelf! 
  • SPF 30 or Above: Higher SPF is better, right? Not necessarily. There is limited data proving that SPF of 100+  offers more photoprotection than sunscreens with SPF 30. SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays while SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays. If you apply frequently enough, SPF 30 is more than enough protection. ¹²
  • Water Resistant: Look to see if the sunscreen says how long it can resist water. Most will offer protection for either 40 minutes or 80 minutes. Choose the option that matches your plans— 40 minutes of resistance is sufficient for a quick splash in the pool, whereas 80 minutes of resistance with reapplication is best if you plan on being in and out of the water for most of the day.¹³
  • Mineral Protectants: Sunscreens include either mineral or chemical sun protectants as their active ingredients. While both are effective, they protect the skin in different ways. Chemical sunscreens like avobenzone and octocrylene are absorbed into the skin and convert UV radiation into heat. Mineral protectants like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide stay on the skin surface and form a durable, physical barrier against UV radiation. Mineral sunscreens are better for people with sensitive skin, who may experience redness and irritation when exposed to chemical sunscreens.¹⁴
  • 06How do I correctly apply sunscreen? 

    Now that you’ve selected the perfect sunscreen for yourself, follow these guidelines to ensure you are maximizing its effectiveness:

    • Apply 15 minutes before sun exposure 
    • Use a shot glass worth of SPF for the entire body 
    • Apply to all uncovered areas of skin including feet, hands, ears and neck
    • Reapply every 2 hours to maintain protection ¹⁵

    06Can I repair skin that’s already damaged?

    While prevention is undoubtedly the best first-line of defense against UV radiation, it’s not too late to repair sun damage that’s already occurred.

    Luckily, we have just the solution: OS-01, our breakthrough peptide is proven to reduce the accumulation of senescent cells from UVB exposure by up to 42% in human skin cells (Zonari, et al., 2023). In lab studies, after exposing skin cells to UVB rays, our scientists compared the levels of senescent cells following no treatment or treatment with OS-01. Samples treated with OS-01 showed significantly reduced senescence cells — groundbreaking proof that it’s possible to target one of the key mechanisms in photoaging!

    In vitro human dermal fibroblasts (HDFs) isolated from 30 yr donors were exposed to UVB radiation (0.1J/cm^2) then immediately treated with the OS-01 peptide (12.5uM) and stained with senescence-associated beta galactosidase (SA-Bgal). By counting the number of UVB-induced senescent cells to determine the level of cellular damage that was prevented by exposure to the OS-01 peptide, it was determined that the OS-01 peptide prevented UVB-induced senescence by 42.5% in the 30-year-old skin cells (***p < 0.001; ****p < 0.0001) (Zonari, et al., 2023).

    Another effective strategy is to utilize ingredients that target MMPs, the collagen-degrading enzymes that are activated by UV radiation. In another lab study, our scientists exposed in vitro human skin cells to UVB radiation then immediately treated them with the OS-01 peptide. As expected, cells exposed to UVB radiation alone expressed significantly higher levels of collagen-degrading MMP3. However, cells that were immediately treated with the OS-01 peptide after exposure did not experience a significant increase in MMP3, indicating that the OS-01 peptide can prevent UVB-induced MMP3 expression (Zonari, et al., 2023).

    Expression analysis of human dermal fibroblasts without treatment, exposed to  0.1 J/cm2 UVB and exposed to UVB followed by treatment with 12.5 μM OS-01 peptide. Data was normalized to the expression of untreated human dermal fibroblasts not exposed to UVB. Data representative of ≥3 independent experiments in triplicate. (*p<0.05) (Zonari, et al., 2023)

    Some evidence also shows that antioxidants may be helpful in minimizing an increase in MMPs following sun exposure. One study even found that, in combination with sunscreen, vitamin C, amongst other antioxidants, was effective at minimizing an increase in MMPs following photodamage.¹⁶  That’s why we include potent antioxidants along with OS-01 in all of our Topical Supplements–creating comprehensive restoration against sun damage.

    07 Key Takealways

    • Sun damage is caused by UV radiation in sunlight and is responsible for up to 90% of visible signs of aging.
    • Skin tone, the length of time you are exposed to UV rays, your environment, and personal habits all determine your susceptibility to sun damage.
    • Sunscreen is an effective, and necessary, tool against sun damage. When looking for sunscreen, pay attention to factors such as SPF, water resistance, and ingredients.
    • It’s not too late to repair sun damage you already have. In studies, OS-01 was shown to reduce UVB-induced damage by minimizing levels of collagen-degrading enzymes.

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