Sun Damage: The Good News (Yes, Good)

We’ve been told for decades that the tanning we did as teens would later plague us in the form of age spots, rough texture and fine lines. Yet many women are finding that their skin looks better than they ever expected. How did we escape head-to-toe sunspots? And can we keep that luck alive?

by Genevieve Monsma
Photograph: Condé Naste Archives/Corbis

I grew up in the Midwest, but that didn’t stop me from being tan year-round. Summers, I baked myself bronze. Winters, I hit the tanning bed. During spring breaks, I sizzled my skin so severely, I’d peel like an unraveling mummy for weeks afterward. Yet as I enter midlife, skin that should be covered in sunspots...is not.

Now, I’m not claiming Jennifer Lopez–like flawlessness. But I don’t look sun ravaged, and in that I’m no anomaly. Many friends and colleagues in their thirties and beyond also say their skin is doing better than they’d hoped, and even dermatologists admit that many former sun-worshipping patients have surprisingly decent complexions. “I see a number of women who I calculate to be younger than they are—or who look their age, but a ‘young’ version of it. And certainly most look better than their mothers did,” says David Bank, MD, a dermatologist in Mount Kisco, New York.

So how’d we dodge the sun-damage bullet?

“Many women over the age of 35 changed their sunbathing habits years ago,” says Fredric Brandt, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist with practices in Miami and Manhattan. “They started wearing sunscreen diligently and using a retinol product, both of which have helped undo some damage.”

As with smoking, reformation has its rewards. For example, a sunbathing cease-fire allows the skin to repair itself. Explains Bank: “All organs of the body have built-in repair mechanisms. If you think about years of evolution, long before physicians, children got injured . . . and the ones who couldn’t repair themselves didn’t live to reproduce. So we are the fortunate descendants of forebears with cellular-repair mechanisms.” Thus, although many of us did a fair amount of UV damage, a decade (or two) out of harm’s way has enabled our skin to repair and heal.

And the benefits of sun reform are validated by most of the formerly tan I polled. “At 30, my skin tone became uneven,” says Jennifer Fisherman-Ruff, a publicist. “I also saw broken capillaries and mild rosacea. My skin had always been perfect, and this was a scare. So I started wearing SPF 60 and a big hat when I’m outside for any length of time. I’ve also had peels, micro-dermabrasion and Fraxel laser treatments, and I use Retin-A.” Fisherman-Ruff, now in her early forties, could still pass for thirty-something.

Jiyon Lee, 42, a radiologist with nearly flawless skin, says she was not a big sun worshipper growing up in Georgia but did get plenty of incidental UV exposure: “My skin was tan as a kid—probably just part of living in the South.” Any damage she incurred has stayed hidden, however, a relief for Lee and the result, she believes, of sunscreen use (starting in her thirties) as well as little time spent outdoors as an adult: “All my medical schooling plus long work hours has meant I’m rarely outside when the sun is.” Lee also swears by the Merle Norman Brilliant-C line, which uses stabilized vitamin C to fade dark spots and even out skin tone (merlenorman.com).

Jacquie Berry, 40, a high school pal whose Native American skin I envied because it deepened faster than my German-Irish genes allowed, changed her ways too, albeit later in life. “I was terrible about SPF; I wouldn’t even wear sunglasses because I feared raccoon eyes,” says Berry. “But at 37, after I had a baby, my skin suddenly seemed less elastic—and duller. So I finally quit sunning.” And last I saw her, Berry’s poreless skin was still envy inducing.

I too was a little late to the reform party. I married a decade ago and am tanned in my honeymoon pictures. But having my skin evaluated in my thirties with a UV camera cured me fast. What lurked beneath the surface reminded me of Magda in There’s Something About Mary (if you haven’t seen it, just know: that’s seriously not good). So as I write this, I’m in Florida, slathered in SPF 85 and wearing an enormous hat. I also wear sun block daily, use -Retin-A and have had sunspots
lasered off my chest. If you’re one of those who’ve yet to change your ways, it’s not too late.

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