One word: “sunscreen.” Did your eyes glaze over? I don’t blame you. I’ll be the first one to admit that, when it comes to skin-care topics, sunscreen is both confusing and boring. Makeup, sheet masks, oil cleansers—all kinda sexy, right? But sunscreen, well, it sounds about as exciting as homework.
So, on that note, I’m dedicating an entire chapter to it! But hey, I’m not doing this for my health; I’m doing it for yours—when it comes to sunscreen, we’re not just talking about preventing premature aging, we’re talking about preventing skin cancer. Everything we’ve previously covered—cleansers, toners, exfoliators, treatment products, and moisturizers—are ways to maintain and correct the damage that’s already been done to your skin. Sunscreen’s the last step, but probably the most important one, because now it’s all about prevention, baby. (Did I make it sound sexy there? Well, I tried.)
No matter what a commercial or label promises, there’s no skin-care product that will result in dramatic, lasting improvements overnight. But even if you’re not expecting immediate gratification, sunscreen is a product that will truly test your patience. Its purpose is to protect your skin, not improve it, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to keep up with. Use it day in and day out, and you’re not going to look better, just the same. But just think about that: If you can keep your skin looking pretty much the same, and minimize its damage and deterioration, that’s no small feat over time. Even if you’re young enough that you don’t care that much about aging now, you will someday—and it will come along sooner than you think.
As a California native, I grew up believing that pasty white legs were to be avoided at all costs. Spring break wasn’t really spring break unless you went someplace (even if it was just someone’s backyard) where you bobbed on a noodle in an outdoor pool, played lots and lots of beer pong, and came back a warm golden bronze. We thought that a good tan looked happy and healthy and was synonymous with the relaxing joys of being on vacation.
At the same time, my L.A. County hometown had a pretty big Asian immigrant population, so it was a common sight to see Korean moms driving in their minivans while wearing a full face visor, gloves, and fake sleeves that went up to the armpits—all to protect their skin from the sun. From the outside looking in, it might seem a little bit cray cray to take sun care that seriously. I know it did to my friends and me, and we cracked more than a few jokes at our moms’ expense.
A straddler in both worlds, I avoided anything that might resemble this crazy, overprotective route. All that changed when I went to Korea and saw firsthand that it wasn’t just nerdy older ladies who were conscious about sun exposure. In Seoul, protecting your skin from the sun was smart and savvy and something that everybody did.
So I bought some sunscreen, and sometimes I even remembered to wear it. But I’d still skimp on cloudy days, or when I knew I was going to be inside most of the time, and didn’t take my sun protection all that seriously. What really drove it home and made me a believer was when I started my esthetician training and began to study the science behind skin.
Sunscreen is the real deal. Not to be dramatic, but it can keep you looking years younger and, when it comes to skin cancer, save your life. Still, though, I’ve met tons of people who don’t think twice about going out of their way to eat organic, or spend money on expensive yoga lessons for their well-being, yet let sun protection fall low on their list of priorities. For some reason, a lot of us still tend to think of sunscreen as a negotiable part of our beauty routine, and this couldn’t be further from the truth.
There’s a Korean proverb that goes “Where you plant a soybean, you will get a soybean. Where you plant a red bean, you will get a red bean.” Did I lose you? Ha, well, this is just a long-winded way of saying you reap what you sow. And if you neglect your sun care, twenty to thirty years down the line you’ll regret that you didn’t plant a few dozen acres of soybeans and red beans. Your regret might even be written right across your face—in the form of age spots, wrinkles, and sagging skin.
Sun Protection Myths and Facts
While Western popular consciousness is no doubt catching up, Koreans have been in this “stay out of the sun” game for way longer. While I was in Southern California, slathering on suntan lotion to turn my skin a deeper shade of brown, my Korean counterparts halfway around the world were dodging direct sunlight at all costs. When I got to Seoul, I was surprised to see that even on particularly sunny, beautiful days, I’d see many people forgoing a view of the clear blue sky in favor of the protection of sun umbrellas. In California, this didn’t happen—people moved there specifically for the sun.
Sure, the sun feels great on your shoulders, and we’ve been conditioned to believe that we look better with a tan. Still, the sun is not our friend, and there’s actually no such thing as a “healthy” glow because it can actually damage the skin, increase your risk of cancer, and age your skin prematurely. So how do we change our mindset and start taking our sun protection as seriously as we should? Well, first we have to be convinced that it’s actually worth our time. To do that, I want to address some common questions and misgivings that you might have about protecting yourself from the sun.
The Little Book of Skin Care
You’re not alone if you are confused about what the different numbers and acronyms stand for on a standard sunscreen product. UV stands for “ultraviolet radiation,” which is a form of energy that comes from the sun. UV spells disaster for your skin, and it’s been deemed a human carcinogen (the term given to any substance or radiation that is cancer causing) because it causes damage to the skin’s cellular DNA.
• The A in UVA stands for aging ray and has a long wavelength, which means it penetrates deep into the skin (the dermis). It’s not only a cancer creator, but it plays a major role in aging because it attacks the collagen in your dermis. You should hate it.
• B stands for burning and has a shorter wavelength than the UVA ray, so it penetrates the skin more superficially. UVB is the main cause of skin cancers, and you can also thank it for that sunburn you got last summer. You should hate it, too.
It’s best to use a sunscreen that contains both UVA and UVB protection. Look for a sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum protection,” which means it has passed the critical wavelength test to protect from both aging and burning rays. See the chart below to see what ingredients protect against which specific rays.