The start of summer welcomes in the longer days and some much needed sunshine. While most of us love the warmth and light of the sun, too much sun exposure can significantly damage our skin. The heat of the sun can dry out areas of unprotected skin and deplete the skin’s supply of natural lubricating oils. In addition, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation can cause burning and long-term changes in the skin’s structure. As the temperature rises, we may become dehydrated or find it difficult to sleep at night, further impacting the skin’s ability to stay healthy and repair itself.
Skin is our largest organ; it is designed to protect us against the external world and harmful microbes, yet it is also fragile and sensitive to internal factors including nutrition, stress, sleep and hormones, and external factors like pollution and sun exposure.
Spending more time outside in the summer exposes skin to polluted air and the sun’s UV rays, which can increase the risk of premature skin aging, wrinkles, lines and uneven pigmentation.
The most common types of sun damage to the skin are:
- Dry skin- sun-exposed skin can gradually lose moisture and essential oils, making it appear dry, flaky and prematurely wrinkled.
- Sunburn – sunburn is the common name for the skin injury that appears immediately after the skin is exposed to UV radiation. Mild sunburn causes only painful reddening of the skin, but more severe cases can produce tiny fluid-filled bumps or larger blisters.
- Actinic keratosis – this is a small, scaly patch of sun-damaged skin that has a pink, red, yellow or brownish tint. Unlike suntan markings or sunburns, an actinic keratosis does not usually go away unless it is frozen, chemically treated or removed by a doctor. An actinic keratosis develops in areas of skin that have undergone repeated or long-term exposure to the sun’s UV light, and it may be a warning sign of increased risk of skin cancer.
- Long-term changes in the skin’s collagen – these changes include premature aging and bleeding from fragile blood vessels beneath the skin surface.
To understand how skin is impacted by these different factors, we should consider the three separate layers: the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis.
The epidermis is the outermost layer from which there is a small but continuous loss of moisture.
This loss of water makes skin look moist and dewy and depends on the body maintaining good hydration throughout the day. However, if the body starts to get dehydrated, water is preserved in the body meaning less water is lost through the skin. Eventually, the skin will start to appear dry and wrinkly. Therefore, maintaining a good hydration status by drinking plenty of water throughout the day, allows the skin to stay moist.
The middle section, known as the dermis, contains elastin, collagen, and hyaluronic acid and connective tissue, all the components that gives skin flexibility and strength.
UV radiation can cause collagen to break down at a higher rate than normal aging. It does this by penetrating the dermis and causing the abnormal build up of elastin. As elastin accumulates, enzymes are produced which inadvertently break down collagen and create dry scaly patches of skin. Continued exposure accelerates the process, leading to further wrinkling and sagging.
In addition, UV radiation creates free radicals that also increase the number of enzymes breaking down collagen. UV exposure ultimately causes the uneven thickening and thinning of the skin, resulting in coarse wrinkling and a yellow discolouration. It can also cause the walls of blood vessels to become thinner, leading to easy bruising and spider veining on the face.
The bottom layer of our skin is called the hypodermis and it consists of subcutaneous fat that houses larger blood vessels and nerve endings responsible for skin cell replacement and repair.
Sleep is the time when your body repairs itself and this is particularly important for skin. During sleep, the skin’s blood flow increases, and rebuilds its collagen and repairs damage from UV exposure, reducing wrinkles and age spots. Many people find their sleep is affected during the summer months, and poor sleep can impact the skin through diminished skin barrier function, poor stem cell activity and an increase in trans-epidermal water loss. These factors collectively contribute towards premature signs of ageing such as fine lines and loss of skin elasticity.
Prevention of skin sun damage
The most important action you can take to help prevent sun-damaged skin is regularly using a sunscreen appropriate for your skin type and the climate and avoiding very hot sun by limiting time outside or covering up. However, there are other important ways to protect your skin:
- Ensure your diet is rich in antioxidants
Antioxidants prevent the breakdown of collagen and elastin, reduce inflammation, help repair cell damage and strengthen and protect skin cells. Antioxidants are found in colourful fruit and vegetables, beans, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, cocoa beans, coffee beans and tea.
- Take a collagen supplement
Scientific research has shown that taking a collagen supplement can reduce wrinkles and improve skin elasticity. Collagen supplements contain collagen peptides that can directly stimulate the metabolism of skin cells involved in collagen synthesis. This leads to an increased production of new collagen, balancing what is lost through UV exposure.
- Maintain good hydration
Get into the habit of drinking enough water on a daily basis – that means on average about two litres a day, taken in small regular amounts throughout the day. Requirements will go up if the weather is hot or if you are exerting yourself through hard physical work or exercise. Don’t rely on thirst as it is not a good indicator, we do not register sensations of thirst until the body is already around two to three per cent dehydrated.
- Establish a good bedtime routine
Establishing a good bedtime routine can help to achieve the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep needed each night. A good routine may involve winding down an hour before bedtime, turning off electronic devises, relaxing with a warm bath or a hot drink and taking a herbal supplement.