5 Lessons About Sun Protection From a Self-Confessed Heliophobe

Photograph by Sharif Hamza, Vogue September 2022

Photograph by Sharif Hamza, Vogue September 2022

When I was a teenager, I spent every summer at the beach worshipping the sun and working on my tan. “You look healthy with some color” was a message that constantly reverberated through my psyche, urged on by friends, family, and images in the media. There was no sun protection, but there was baby oil and sunburn; oh, so much sunburn. But I kept at it, because the sun seduced me with the promise of a “healthy tan.”

Fast forward a few decades, and when the sun comes out, I run away for fear of bursting into flames (figuratively speaking). I am a self-diagnosed heliophobe. You won’t catch me in the sun without an obnoxiously large hat, giant sunglasses, full-body UPF 50 clothing, and at least four different sunscreen formulas. I don’t hate the sun, per se—in fact, I like it, as long as I can admire it from a shady area. I have an objectively healthy fear of sun damage, sunburns, and suntans from UV radiation, which are all one and the same.

What changed for me was that in my 30s, I found a spot on my left arm, which my dermatologist explained had some precancerous markers. It scared me. It was my left arm (the one closest to the window while driving) on which I wore sunscreen every day. I was already a skincare fanatic at this point anyway, so I dove head first into learning everything I could about keeping my skin safe from the sun. What I learned is that the best way to avoid sun damage is to avoid the sun—but since that’s all but impossible, here’s what else I learned.

1. Protect your skin every day

We need to stop thinking about sun protection as seasonal or situational. Protecting your skin from the sun is an important part of a daily self-care routine. It doesn’t matter if you are staying inside, if it’s the middle of winter, or if it’s raining. It’s like brushing your teeth: you just do it.

If you need some motivation, two of my favorite reasons are health and good old-fashioned vanity—and the statistics make for bracing reading. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and up to 90% of the visible signs of skin aging are caused by the sun. (Yes, 90%!) “I urge people to be realistic about their history, risk factors, and goals,” dual-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist Evan Rieder explains. “If someone has a personal or family history of skin cancer (especially melanoma) or is fair with red hair and light eyes, they probably want to be extra careful about their sun exposure. If they care about the aging process, want a beautiful complexion, and want to avoid age spots and the denaturing of the collagen in their skin, then they should also want to be extra careful about sun exposure.”

New York-based dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman agrees that sun protection can be part of a daily practice. “I always recommend applying SPF during your morning routines, regardless of the day and season,” she says. “Wearing UPF clothing and hats will also help reduce your exposure to harmful rays.”

And if you think that you are safe from UV rays when you are inside, you would be wrong. “Despite what you might think, being inside a home or car does not offer total protection against sunlight,” Dr. Rieder says. “UVB rays are blocked by windows, but UVA comes through and can be directly responsible for increasing the risk of skin cancer and skin aging. Likewise, visible light comes through and can contribute to hyperpigmenting conditions like melasma. The higher the elevation, the higher the exposure.” Dermatologist and founder of Lightsaver skincare David Kim explains that UVA rays can be up to two times stronger at flying height—so always be cautious when sitting in a window seat.

2. Sunscreen is not enough

When thinking about sun protection, you might assume we are strictly talking about sunscreen. But while sunscreen should be an important part of your arsenal, it’s not the full defense. Sun protection also includes wearing sunscreen, finding shade, bringing an umbrella, having a wide-brim hat, wearing sun-protective clothing, wearing sunglasses, and avoiding the sun at peak hours. (I’ve gone so far in my personal quest for sunless skin that I have UV-blocking window tint applied to my car.)

UPF Clothing

The Ultraviolet Protection Factor or UPF number is a gauge of how much sun protection a garment offers. “Every piece of clothing could be given a UPF number if tested,” Dr. Rieder explains. “A good rule of thumb is to look for material that is synthetic, tightly woven, and darker in color. This combination of characteristics will block UV light well (think black cycling shorts). The opposite would be something like a white T-shirt, which offers very little UV protection. Of course, there’s also comfort to consider, but many companies make clothing that is more breathable these days.” Another thing to take into account is coverage: Pants and long-sleeve tops are going to protect more surface area, of course, than a pair of shorts and a tank top.

I live in UPF 50 clothing year-round because it takes the guesswork out of how much protection I’m getting. A chic column dress from Solbari is my summer staple and I never leave home without a wrap jacket from Coolibar in my bag—both brands make pieces that are lightweight staples in a sun-conscious person’s wardrobe. Because they design pieces with sun exposure in mind, you can find accessories to protect all those areas which never get enough attention; a fitted shrug to cover bare shoulders and arms, a breezy scarf to shade the delicate neck and décolleté, fingerless gloves because you just can’t apply sunscreen often enough to the tops of the hands, and best of all, thumb holes. Thumb holes in a garment are like pockets in a dress—a practicality that once you experience it, you wonder why it isn’t the standard for all clothing. With growing interest in sun protection fashion brands like Lilly Pulitzer, J.Crew, and Uniqlo have added garments with UPF ratings to their selections.

Hats and Umbrellas

I like to plan ahead and make sure wherever I’m going has shade. If not, I employ the category of sun protection I like to call, “Bring your own shade.” Hats and umbrellas are the perfect accessories to shelter you from the sun.

I ask the co-founder and CEO of Solbari Johanna Young if size matters when it comes to hat brims. “The minimum brim length recommendation by the Australia Cancer Council is 3, so all (of our) sun hats comply with the standard,” she explains. Coolibar notes that the US standard is also a minimum of 3” but they recommend a 4” brim for better protection.

If you are not wearing a UPF-rated hat, one gauge of how much protection it may offer (other than measuring the brim) is to hold it up to the light. If you see light through it, pick another hat. And if you hate hats? Perhaps you can stash a fashionable umbrella in your bag to whip out when the sun begins beating down.

3. Seek out double-duty sunscreen

When it comes to sunscreen, you have two choices: mineral or chemical. All the dermatologists I’ve interviewed over the years share the same sentiment: the most important thing about sunscreen is that you use it every day. So really, choose whichever formula you like—just make it a daily habit.

Personally, I want more from my sunscreen, so I look for formulas that will perform double duty, enhancing my skin health while keeping it covered. RMS SuperNatural Radiance Serum Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen is a mineral-based sunscreen that blurs imperfections, leaving skin with a healthy radiant glow—no tan needed. ISDIN sunscreens have a patented formula that repairs existing sun damage while protecting against future damage. Their Eryfotona Actinica SPF 50 and Eryfotona Ageless tinted SPF 50 are both mineral formulas that glide on seamlessly and absorb instantly leaving no tell-tale white cast. Epionce Daily Shield Tinted SPF 50 is an antioxidant-rich formula that moisturizes and provides an even skin tone.

Glo Skin Beauty Oil-Free Tinted Primer SPF 30 is a multi-tasking formula that includes vitamin C and niacinamide while providing sheer coverage and extending makeup wear time. Lightsaver Tinted Activated Mineral Sunscreen SPF 33 combines plankton extract, niacinamide, squalane, and Lingonberry helps improve past sun damage while hydrating the skin. Ursa Major Force Field SPF 30 with squalane, lingonberry, and elfdock flower protects against blue light and UV rays while boosting moisture and firmness. Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Face Shield is an antioxidant-rich mineral blend that imparts luminosity to the skin while protecting it from UV and blue light.

As for reapplication, I like to bring several different SPF formulas with me: a stick, for quick application to the tops of the hands or around the eyes; powder, for the part in my hair and to touch up my face; and a spray for the body. I also bring a sheer moisturizing formula to reapply to my face and neck without ruining my clothes and an SPF-tinted lip balm that doubles as a blush.

4. Consider the time of day

Finding the safest time to get outside and enjoy nature without the threat of high UV radiation all depends upon the time of the year, where you live, and the weather. Phone apps like the weather channel and widgets on smartwatches allow you to check the UV factor at any time of day. In general, any time between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. can be peak UV time.

Dr. Rieder explains: “Beyond sunscreen, there are some things to consider. An antioxidant serum containing vitamin C can be very helpful to undo environmental damage that happens gradually to our skin over time. An oral supplement like polypodium leucotomos can be helpful in decreasing your skin’s reactivity to the sun. Niacinamide can be helpful for reducing the risk of skin cancer for those who have had several squamous cell cancers of the skin.”

5. Is it possible to reverse the effects of sun damage?

While damaging your skin can be as easy as stepping out in the sun, getting rid of it is slightly more complicated. All of the dermatologists I spoke to emphasized the importance of visiting your dermatologist one to two times a year, depending on your personal and family history, to get a full body skin check.

As for reversing the damage, Dr. Rieder advises that the best method is something the experts called “field treatment,” which involves treating a large area of skin, whether the face, chest, arms, or a combination. “My favorite way to do this is with fractionated laser technology, like Fraxel, LaseMD, or Halo Laser,” says Dr. Rieder. “These lasers are very tolerable, and do their magic by causing a superficial exfoliation of skin over the course of several days. This evens skin tone and removes pigmented spots and precancerous damage. These lasers are extremely reliable and give incredible and predictable aesthetic results.”

For Dr. Engelman, another way of removing sun spots and other signs of sun damage is chemical peels, which use a powerful dose of acids to weaken the cellular bonds between skin cells in the dermis. “This exfoliation helps to slough away dead, dull-looking cells, reveal healthy cells, reduce hyperpigmentation and improve skin texture,” says Dr. Engelman. “I also love chemical peels because you can get them done in-office or do them at home yourself.”

Among the products Engelman recommends are Glo Skin Beauty’s peel kits, the Hydra-Bright AHA Glow Peel, and the Beta-Clarity AHA Clarifying Peel for when skin needs a reset. “I also love Dr. Dennis Gross’ Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel Pads because they are a pre-dosed product and easy to travel with and use on the go,” she adds. “These are great for individuals who are nervous about at-home peels because they are individually packed and easy for beginners to swipe on.” She goes on to explain that laser treatments are “also a great way to help fade hyperpigmentation and reduce signs of aging caused by oxidative stress,” citing photodynamic therapy, IPL, and Pico lasers as examples that provide great effects.

Dr. Kim also assures me that there are ways to help get rid of sun damage, again citing lasers as an important treatment for improving hyperpigmentation, texture, and overall complexion and quality of the skin. Given the sheer range of lasers on offer, however, Kim advises that it’s important to see a trained board-certified dermatologist so they can recommend the right treatment based on your skin type. “Fraxel, a fractionated non-ablative resurfacing laser, is very effective at treating sun damage,” Dr. Kim explains. “It helps soften fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and improves the overall quality of the skin. A recent 2023 study (Derm Surg, 2023) done at Harvard/MGH also showed that a treatment with Fraxel was associated with a decreased risk of developing skin cancer in patients with a history of skin cancer. Now they’re exploring ways to use it as a preventative measure.”

The takeaway, really, is you don’t have to be fanatical about sun protection to care for your skin. You can add a few simple steps to your routine, or you can go full-bore like me. Either choice can have a long-lasting impact on the health of your skin. The most important advice? See your dermatologist one to two times a year for a skin check-up.

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