The sun may have wreaked havoc on your clients’ skin, but all is not lost. Here’s what you need to know to treat short- and long-term UV damage.

When it comes to the negative effects of sun exposure on the skin, an ounce of prevention (otherwise known as a shot-glassful of SPF) is worth a pound of cure. But summer is here, and with the warmer weather comes a sort of “skincare amnesia” for clients: They hit the beach to soak up the rays, then come into your spa reveling over their “healthy glow.” Meanwhile, you know it’s the start of something a lot more sinister: sun damage. And for many of these clients, it’s damage on top on damage, the accumulation of many such summers that have led to issues of compromised hydration, pigmentation problems, premature wrinkling and roughened texture.

Thankfully, it is possible to effectively treat such conditions, and in some cases even reverse and repair the damage caused by the sun. Topical brighteners can help, as can peels and masks; in general, the treatments that work for hyperpigmentation stemming from other causes can benefit sun-damaged skin, just as the treatments that soothe and soften skin that has been ravaged by pollution, stress and aging can make a difference in skin that has been assaulted by sunshine. But it’s up to you to devise a strategy that includes in-spa treatments and an aggressive homecare regimen. Here is some key info and advice from top experts to help you do exactly that.

One Ray at a Time

The culprits in sun-damaged skin are electromagnetic waves, with lengths ranging from 100 to 400 nanometers (nm), that emanate from that big ball of helium in the sky, explains Christine Heathman, CEO and president of Glymed Plus Skin Care, and a licensed esthetician for 25 years. The waves are classified as vacuum UV (100nm to 190nm), UVC (190nm to 290nm), UVB (290nm to 320nm) and UVA (320nm to 400nm), each according to its biological action. In general, UV radiation “suppresses skin immunity and induces formation of reactive oxygen species in the cells,” Heathman says. “The acute erythema inflammatory reaction is typical, and is caused by the sunburn that also initiates DNA damage and phototoxicity and depletes the skin of its vital antioxidant defense.”

UVA rays reach deeply into the skin, and it’s believed that they are responsible for initiating skin cancers, although UVB rays may contribute as well. UVA rays are present at all times of day and throughout the year. They can penetrate clouds and glass, which is why sun protection is essential even indoors. UVB rays are known for sunburn and for making the skin sensitive. “UVB is more likely to damage the skin’s more superficial epidermal layers,” explains Lisa M. Crary, owner of and CEO at Sanìtas Skincare. “Unlike UVA rays, the intensity of UVB rays varies by season, location and time of day.”

The easy way to remember the difference between UVA and UVB, says Erin Ferrill, licensed esthetician and East Coast educator for HydroPeptide, is by looking at the last letter in the acronym. “UVA rays are ‘aging’ rays and UVB rays are ‘burning’ rays,” she says.

The Inside Story

There are myriad kinds of skin damage, short of skin cancer, that overexposure to sun can cause. “Sun damage is responsible for premature wrinkling and aging of the skin due to changes in collagen in the deep layers of the skin as well as actinic purpura—bleeding from fragile blood vessels beneath the skin surface caused by damage to the structural collagen that supports their walls,” explains Rachel Grossman of Somme Institute. “You see damage to basal and squamous keratinocytes [skin cells], and visible discoloration on the skin’s surface. Further, a sunburn causes redness, inflammation, and tiny fluid-filled bumps or larger blisters. The sun’s heat also depletes the skin’s supply of natural lubricating oils, weakening its barrier.”

This happens, Grossman continues, because the body produces melanin to protect the living layer from being damaged. “Like a beach dotted with umbrellas,” she explains, “the skin puts up random, sporadic freckling to protect itself.” Elisabeth Murchison, director of education at Guinot/Lachman Imports, uses a different metaphor: “Think of an octopus,” she says. “When threatened, it attacks by shooting ink onto its predators. Our skin does the same; the problem is that too much sun exposure creates too much melanin.”

Sun damage can be mild, severe or anything in between. “Mild damage manifests as discoloration, dullness, rough texture and dryness,” Crary says. “Severe damage can also cause actinic keratosis—red, scaly lesions that may be precursors to cancer—and solar elastosis [an accumulation of abnormal elastic tissue] that appears as deep furrows, more pronounced lines, and wrinkles and yellowish skin tone.” Such effects may not become evident on the skin’s surface until years after chronic sun exposure. And, Crary adds, sun damage occurs both instantaneously and cumulatively. “Just a few minutes of exposure to UV rays, particular UVA, will begin to impede collagen production,” she warns.

Just a few minutes of exposure to UV rays, particular UVA, will begin to impede collagen production

Putting Out Fires

Suppose your client shows up at your spa after a long afternoon on the tennis court, hoping to head off the worst of the sun’s effects before they “set in.” Most likely her skin is already experiencing an acute inflammatory response, meaning that her skin’s defense mechanisms have already been activated. Redness, heat, pain, discoloration and even tanning are all signs of recent overexposure. After a few days, the affected skin may also peel. Here is when products that contain antioxidants, hydrators and soothers, anti-inflammatories and even peptides come into play.

Antioxidants neutralize free radicals while boosting collagen and elastin production, helping to prevent tissue from breaking down and accelerating the onset of wrinkles, sagging skin—and even disease. Dr. Howard Murad, dermatologist and founder of Murad, believes that daily use of products containing vitamins A and C can protect and promote cell strength.

“Once spots reveal themselves, reach for topical products that are high in vitamin C, which has been shown to be effective in reducing hyperpigmentation and providing powerful antioxidant protection,” Murad advises. He also touts the free radical-fighting properties of goji berry and pomegranate extracts.

Heather Hickman, director of U.S. education for Dermalogica and The International Dermal Institute, suggests that skincare professionals treating immediate post-sun damage reach for herbal remedies such as Japanese alder “to defend against free radicals and accelerate recovery of UV-induced DNA damage.”

Alice Pichery, a trainer with Sothys International, recommends that clients prevent premature aging caused by the production of free radicals following sun exposure by applying products containing the antioxidant vitamin E, in addition to flavonoids and polyphenols.

Hydrators/soothers/anti-inflammatories are key for addressing symptoms indicating recent overexposure to the sun. Soothing ingredients often used for sensitive skin, such as bisabolol and allantoin, are good bets for after-sun care, says Sothys’ Pichery. She also suggests use of an after-sun moisturizer containing hyaluronic acid and glycerin at least twice a day until the skin recovers. Nourishing oils like jojoba oil and shea butter will relieve dryness, she adds, helping to prevent the skin from peeling.

Katherine Tomasso, lead educator at Yon-Ka Paris, stresses the value of combining two types of hyaluronic acid, in light and heavy molecular weights, to optimize moisture, post-sun exposure. “The heavier weight results in a surface action and forms a protective film that slows down transepidermal water loss without an occlusive action,” she says. “Combining different molecular weights of the same active ingredient makes it possible to benefit from all its properties, at varying skin levels, and to accumulate its effects.”

Dermalogica’s Hickman notes that, in addition to hyaluronic, algae extracts and glycolipids can “restore lost moisture to further accelerate the recovery process.” She also recommends blends of homeopathic herbs like clove oil, Szechuan pepper, licorice, mugwort, lavender, cucumber, chamomile, Canadian willow herb and yucca to help reduce the irritation, redness and pain associated with sunburn. Masks with provitamin B5 can aid in skin repair and hydration; and tomato seed oil is a source of lycopene-rich lipids that help restore protective barrier lipids in the skin.

Peppermint leaf has a “wonderfully cooling effect” on inflamed skin, Murad notes. HydroPeptide’s Ferrill reminds that 100% aloe vera helps to calm sunburned areas and heal them faster. (Avoid, however, any less-than-pure aloe product, she cautions, which may contain alcohol and will dry and irritate skin.)

Peptides for short-term treatment? It comes as a surprise to some, but certain peptides can be useful in treating skin that has been recently affected by sun exposure. Depending on the specific peptide, these amino acid chains have the ability to reduce the appearance of redness, improve the skin’s ability to hold hydration, neutralize discomfort and even makes the skin more resistant to future sensitivity, says HydroPeptide’s Ferrill.

Depending on the specific peptide, amino acid chains have the ability to reduce the appearance of redness, improve the skin’s ability to hold hydration, neutralize discomfort and even makes the skin more resistant to future sensitivity.

Pigment inhibitors can begin doing their job immediately after sun exposure takes place. After all, the sunburn that your client experiences today can become the hyperpigmentation they may see weeks and months down the road—unless you act quickly.

“Send clients home with a regimen that includes nightly application of topical vitamin C—preferably magnesium ascorbyl phosphate [MAP] in a serum that absorbs deeply—followed by a collagen protein hydrator,” recommends Tino Lerma, medical esthetic educator and global corporate trainer for Pevonia International. MAP can stimulate collagen synthesis while controlling tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in the cascade of melanogenesis, which can cause post-inflammatory pigmentation.

Recommend a light alpha hydroxyl (AHA) peel for resurfacing damaged cells and stimulating increased cell turnover, adds Pevonia medical director of education, Dr. Christian Jurist. “My favorite AHA peel is a lactic acid peel because lactic acid itself is a tyrosinase inhibitor, not just an alpha hydroxyl acid,” he says. “This special acid that exists in the skin naturally is very hydrating, assisting the skin in its own production of ceramides. Lactic acid is a one-stop shop for correcting early sun damage.”

Long Time Coming

Long-term sun damage requires its own strategy. “Long-term exposure to UV rays breaks down collagen and elastin fibers, which keep skin firm and supple,” Murad explains. “When those fibers break down, the skin begins to sag, stretch and lose its ability to go back into place after stretching.” Long-term exposure also causes wrinkles, freckles, age spots, dilated blood vessels and roughened texture that makes skin look older.

Glymed’s Heathman suggests treating long-term damage with products containing retinol, which improves photo-damaged skin by reversing UV injury, “making it act younger and look smoother and healthier overall.” Retinol is an important regulator of epidermal cell growth, she adds, as well as a protector of Langerhans cells (which are vital for maintaining the skin’s immunity); it also increases DNA synthesis for specific cell cycle progression. Retinol will enhance hydroquinone and other tyrosinase-inhibiting (melanin-controlling) ingredients used for pigmentation management, Heathman points out, and also improve transepidermal water loss properties of the stratum corneum damaged by UV radiation.

Similarly, Karen Asquith, national director of education at G.M. Collin Skin Care, recommends using products with tyrosinase inhibitors, preferably at night.

Exfoliants are key go-tos in a day spa’s sun damage treatment toolbox. “More aggressive exfoliation methods—such as microdermabrasion and mild chemical peels—lift the melanin that has reached the surface layers and improve texture; medical-grade chemical peels reach more deeply into the skin and lift even more of the visible damage,” explains Somme’s Grossman. Go-to chemical exfoliants such as glycolic, lactic and malic acids have all been used successfully for the treatment of long-term sun damage and photo-aged skin. “Although utilized for a wide variety of dermatological conditions, AHAs improve photo-aging by aiding fine rhytids [wrinkles], lentigines [spots], telangiectasia [dilated blood vessels], dyspigmentation, laxity and skin roughness,” Heathman explains. She recommends a minimum of six scheduled AHA peeling treatments, followed by intermittent peels as necessary, and states that changes will be visible after the third peel.

Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) is considered the gold standard in peeling, says Heathman and, because it is safe for most skin colors, serves as an excellent exfoliation solution for more severe photo-damaged and photo-aged skin. However, “Knowledge of this peel and skill set is important,” she cautions. Pevonia’s Lerma concurs: “The decision should be made by the esthetic professional and the client after discussing treatment options, along with pros and cons of each treatment.

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