During summer, many people enjoy sunbathing to get a tan. However, doing so responsibly and avoiding excessive sun exposure is crucial.

We spoke with a dermatologist who provided valuable insights on protecting your skin.

Sun and Skin: Why is the Sun Good for the Skin?

The sun is essential for our skin as exposure helps activate vitamin D production. Vitamin D is necessary for strengthening our bones by aiding in calcium absorption.

Sun exposure also triggers the production of melanin, which regulates our sleep-wake cycle and has other essential functions. However, overexposure to the sun without protection can lead to severe problems.

Sun Damage to the Skin

Excessive sun exposure can cause both immediate (acute) and long-term (chronic) skin damage.

The skin may become inflamed in the acute phase, resulting in redness and itching. In severe cases, blisters and vesicles may appear. Avoiding further sun exposure and using creams to alleviate these symptoms is essential.

In the chronic phase, damage occurs at the DNA level of the deeper cells of the skin. While cells typically have mechanisms to repair damaged DNA, repeated wear can hinder their ability to self-repair. This can lead to pre-cancerous lesions, like actinic keratoses, or skin cancers, like basal and squamous cell carcinomas.

It is crucial not to overlook these lesions. Regular skin self-examination is recommended, and a specialist should be consulted if you notice any atypical lesions.

Understanding Phototypes

Skin types can be categorized into six phototypes, which indicate the skin’s response to sun exposure. The phototype is determined by factors such as skin color, eye color, and hair color. It also reflects the quality and quantity of melanin in the skin.

Knowing your phototype can help you understand how your skin will react to the sun and what type of tan you are likely to achieve. Italy, for example, has a prevalence of intermediate phototypes, which means people can easily burn and tan poorly.

The phototypes are as follows:

  • Phototype 1: Very light eyes, fair skin, freckles, and red or blond hair (often called the Irish type). This phototype does not tan and is prone to sunburn;
  • Phototype 2: Light eyes and skin, light brown or dark blond hair (often called the German type). This phototype tans very little and is prone to sunburn;
  • Phototype 3: The Mediterranean phototype characterized by brown hair, fair skin, and dark eyes. This phototype tans gradually and burns moderately;
  • Phototype 4: Dark eyes, hair, and complexion, olive skin (often referred to as the dark Mediterranean type). This phototype tans quickly and easily but burns poorly;
  • Phototype 5: Dark eyes and hair, dark skin (often called the South American or Indian type). This phototype always tans and maintains an intense, even complexion for a long time;
  • Phototype 6: People with black skin who are less prone to sunburn and erythema.

Regardless of your phototype, it is essential to protect your skin from sun damage using sunscreen with a suitable sun protection factor (SPF).

Protecting Your Skin from the Sun: Choosing the Right Sunscreen

Sunscreen with SPF is a crucial defense against sunburn. It blocks harmful rays while allowing you to tan without damaging your skin. It is especially important to protect children’s skin.

Children’s skin is more susceptible and absorbs even the toxic components of creams easily. Therefore, it is recommended to use creams with physical filters that reflect sunlight for children, in addition to providing them with hats, T-shirts, and sunglasses.

Sunscreens with chemical filters that absorb the sun’s radiation can be used for adults. The adult skin is less sensitive and more resilient to this type of protection.

Remember to reapply sunscreen every 2 hours and after swimming, as it degrades and wears off quickly. 

However, it is worth noting that sunscreen alone cannot replace common sense. Avoid exposing yourself to the sun during peak hours  (from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), as the concentration of erythematous UVB rays is highest during this time, even on cloudy days. UVA rays, which are the most damaging to the skin, are present at all hours.

Lastly, always consider the local time in relation to daylight when planning your sun exposure.