Summer brings a feeling of liberation as we shed our winter layers, but there can be a downside to this emancipation: sunburn. In spite of everything we know about UV damage and the risk of skin cancer, every spring and summer brings waves of lobster-red vacationers to the drugstore and the spa in search of soothing relief. The sunburn goes away in terms of the redness, sting, and peeling skin. But long after skin looks normal again, deeper damage persists.
With the arrival of warm weather, skin therapists have a unique opportunity — as well as a responsibility — not only to rescue skin which has been sun-blasted, but to help educate our clients to prevent sunburn and irreversible photodamage this summer. One sunburn in childhood or adolescence, or five sunburns at any age will double the chance of developing melanoma later in life, so prevention may literally be life-saving.
FACT: Skin cancer incidence is on the rise, not on the decline. This may be surprising to skin care professionals, since The American Cancer Society and similar organizations have devoted millions of dollars to an aggressive public information campaign about the risks of unprotected sun exposure during the past few decades.
The solution: Talk to your clients one-on-one. We all have the tendency to think that public service campaigns are talking to “somebody else.” This is evident in other areas of public health, including cigarette smoking.
Offer every customer a free skin analysis as part of your customer service protocol, whether they come in simply to buy a sunscreen or have a professional treatment. Use a magnifying headset and get them to look at their skin as you map it and ask questions. For clients who express the idea that they do not need daily defense against UV damage, a quick look through a black light skin-scanner may be an “Aha!” moment, since this device reveals deep-lying damage which has yet to surface. Assess the current level of sun damage, and candidly discuss with the client, identifying clear signs of solar damage including hyperpigmentation and premature fine lines. Use your findings as the basis for product prescription, with an emphasis upon SPF application, as well your recommended skin service.
FACT: A sunburn calls for soothing botanicals, not oil. In the kitchen, inexperienced cooks may grab butter to soothe a burn from a hot pan or oven rack — wrong! Ice (not grease) stops the burn, and a similar cooling action is needed to treat a sunburn.
The solution: If a client does arrive with a sunburn, assess promptly. If there is the slightest evidence of blistering, refer the client immediately to a medical professional.
If the skin is pink or red, and feels tight, painful and hot, anticipate peeling in 24 to 48 hours. Peeling is the skin’s natural defense mechanism: signals are sent to cells to literally “self-destruct” in an effort to expel damaged and DNA altered cells to prevent skin cancer. Meanwhile, recommend no future UV or heat exposure, friction or excessive exercise. A cool bath in plain water, followed by a liberal application of a soothing gel containing essential oil will immediately soothe the burn. Use clove oil to reduce pain. Use licorice, lavender, aloe, cucumber or yucca oil to reduce irritation and inflammation. Applied immediately and consistently, you may even be able to prevent peeling. More advanced products may contain an ingredient called Japanese alder, which accelerates the repair of UV damage on a cellular level. Recommend that the client drink several large glasses of water each day, and avoid smoking, caffeine and alcohol, which constrict capillaries in the skin and slow down healing.
Advise that the client stay out of the sun entirely until the sunburn has healed, which will generally last a week or so. If the client is on vacation with outdoor activities planned, recommend full clothing coverage: long skirt, long pants, long sleeves, garments which cover to the collarbone, hat and head covering. People who live in desert areas – think of the regally clad Tuareg culture of sub-Saharan Africa – dress this way for a reason.
FACT: Consumers may overestimate the effectiveness of UV protection products. This may explain the rise in skin cancer, in spite of the ongoing public service warnings about UV.
The solution: Educate clients about the need for daily broad spectrum daylight defense as the last step in their morning regimen. A shift is necessary in how we think about UV protection: from “sun” to “daylight” protection, year-round. The “I’m indoors all day” excuse also does not stick, since we now know that UV penetrates glass. This means that aging UV damage reaches us through windows of our home, office and car! Also, simply staying in the shade may not be enough, since UV rays bounce back off all surfaces including snow, concrete, sand and water.
Consumers also have to keep in mind that SPF products, though more advanced in terms of formulation and technology than ever before, are not magic. Most people do not apply enough product, and do not re-apply frequently enough. Make it visual: a teaspoon of product for the face, applied every two hours when outdoors, and a one-ounce, shot-glass sized for the body. Sweating and swimming make diligent re-application throughout the day essential. Encourage clients to literally set a timer, or download a reminder app on their smart phones.
Share the newer, tougher approach taken by the FDA in regards to naming and discussing UV protection products. In the past, many manufacturers overstated the claims made by their sun protection products, and this may have led to the false sense of safety among consumers. Just as there is no such thing as a “healthy” cigarette, there is no such thing as a “safe” tan from the sun. The good news is that new technology and more precise regulations allow consumers to be better-informed and better-protected from UV damage, every day.