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Sun damage and the importance of sunscreen

With the UK in the middle of a heat wave, it’s no surprise that everyone is trying to make the most of the sun and spend lots of time soaking it up. However, the harmful effects of the sun are one of the number one causes of skin damage, even if you don’t burn or tan. Up to 90 percent of visible skin changes commonly attributed to ageing are in fact caused by sun exposure.

Dr Parisha Acharya, Aesthetic Doctor at Waterhouse Young says: “We see the results of sun damage in our patients every day, and even though these effects may not be immediately noticeable to the human eye, our computerised skin analysis often shows underlying damage that usually leads to more noticeable signs later. We should all use sun protection every day, all year round, to protect and preserve our skin.”

Here’s why your skincare routine should always include protection from the sun…

UVA and UVB rays

Simply put, UV radiation is part of the natural energy produced by the sun, the two types of UV radiation most of us of have heard of being Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB). UVA has a longer wavelength, and is associated with premature skin ageing, whilst the shorter wavelength of UVB is what leads to skin burning. Unprotected exposure to both UVA and UVB causes harm to our skin though, as the rays damage the DNA in our skin cells, producing genetic defects and mutations that can lead to skin cancer, as well as premature ageing and pigmentation. And it’s not just our skin that’s affected: these rays may also cause eye damage, including cataracts and eyelid cancers.

In practical terms, UVB is strongest in the summer months and cannot penetrate cloud, which is why many people assume we need not wear sun protection unless we’re out in the sunshine. However, UVA radiation remains constant and causes damage all year round, penetrating cloud and glass. So even on the dullest of days, while indoors or driving, our skin is still at risk.

HEV rays

Furthermore, the recently discovered High Energy Visible light (HEV) also contributes to photoageing, and is to be found all around us.

HEV is what we may know as blue light or near ultra violet light, and as well as in sun exposure it can be derived from computer screens, mobile devices, tablets, and full spectrum lighting. Like UVA rays, HEV generates free radicals which cause skin cells to produce enzymes that break down collagen and elastin. These are what give our skin its plump, youthful appearance, so any breakdown in them may induce premature sagging and deep wrinkles. Alongside UVA and UVB, HEV can also lead to uneven skin pigmentation (hyperpigmentation) and may contribute to the development of age spots or sun spots, and melasma. So even when indoors, away from a natural source of light, our skin is still exposed to the risk of damage from artificial light.

What can we do to protect our skin?

It’s clear that our skin needs protection from light, but what are the most comprehensive ways to achieve this?

Sunscreen is of course essential to our skin care routines, and there are two types: physical (also known as mineral), which creates a barrier to block the sun’s rays; and chemical, which is absorbed by the skin to form a chemical reaction that protects it from the sun.

If you already have a sunscreen but you’re not sure which type it is, you can check by looking at the ingredients list: the active ingredients in physical sunscreens are usually titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, while chemical sunscreens tend to contain ingredients such as Octylcrylene, Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Helioplex and Mexoryl.

We recommend using a mineral sunscreen as it’s immediately effective, more photostable, and is less likely to cause any allergic reaction. Most doctors suggest using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, every day. We would normally recommend a product such as Heliocare 360 which offers protection against UVA, UVB, and HEV, as well as DNA repair enzymes and anti-oxidants to help boost the health of your skin. Whilst many cosmetics now contain sun-protecting ingredients and may be labelled with SPF, it’s usually unlikely that you’d be using enough to provide the necessary coverage, so it’s important to apply a sunscreen underneath your makeup first. 

If you’re out in the sun, it’s imperative to reapply your sunscreen every two hours, as well as after swimming or exercise. And, as damage can also be caused to the lips and eyes, it is crucial to wear a lip balm that has an SPF of 15 or higher, as well as sunglasses when you’re outside. 

But what about Vitamin D?

It’s a common misconception that we need to forego sun protection in order to make enough Vitamin D. Studies have shown that those who use daily sun protection are perfectly able to maintain their Vitamin D levels, which is necessary to keep our bones strong and boosts our immune system.

This is because even using sun protection products with high a SPF won’t block all UVB rays, and in summer we only need a short period of sun exposure on small areas such as hands, arms and lower legs to create sufficient Vitamin D. Outside of the summer months there simply isn’t enough UVB present to be able to produce enough Vitamin D, which is why the NHS recommends taking a daily Vitamin D supplement throughout the winter months.

What can we do about the damage already done?

If you can see the effects of sun damage on your skin, perhaps in the form of dark patches, freckles or discolouration, or fine lines and wrinkles, then your first step should be to seek professional advice. We offer an initial consultation with our aesthetic doctor, during which we will take some pictures using our computerised Visia skin analysis which looks at various depths of your skin. This helps us understand underlying issues including sun damage, and will also highlight any brown spots or pigmentation which may not yet be visible to you but could become a problem in the future. Based on these results, we’ll help you find the best way to turn back the clock and minimise the effects of sun damage.

IPL photorejuvenation

Waterhouse Young now offers Formatk IPL photorejuvenation, which uses the latest technology to treat concerns such as sun damage and pigmentation, as well as facial redness and thread veins, acne, rosacea and leg veins.

The procedure is very effective at reducing the appearance of sun and age spots on the face, neck, décolletage and hands, targeting melanin in the darkened areas to reveal unblemished photo finished skin. The energy delivered causes the pigmented lesions to lighten and fade through your body’s natural healing process, resulting in clearer and healthier looking skin. In addition, performing the treatment stimulates collagen production, helping the skin to look more youthful and supple. The treatment is suitable for most skin types.

If only we knew how harmful the sun and its rays were 20 years ago. Sadly we didn’t, and whilst many of us were casually covering ourselves in baby oil to achieve the deepest possible tan, we had no idea of the extent of damage we were causing. Thankfully, we now have a much deeper understanding of the problem, and can take steps to protect our skin in the future. 


Waterhouse Young is one of London’s leading medical aesthetic & wellbeing clinics, founded by one of the UK’s top cosmetic surgeons, Norman Waterhouse - former President of the BAAPS. Based off Harley Street, the clinic features regularly in the media, from Vogue, Tatler, Grazia and Elle to The Times. WY’s longstanding, friendly team is highly qualified and offers non-surgical treatments which are safe, proven and deliver demonstrable results, restoring skin and health to the highest standard.


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