Can You Build a Resistance to Sunburn?

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Summer is almost upon us, and with that comes increased sun exposure. By now, we’re all well aware that sunburn isn’t good for our skin, and there are ample sun protection options. However, did you know that it’s possible to build skin’s resistance to UV damage and sunburn? There are a few ways to go about it, but not all of the techniques are recommended by experts.

  • Orit Markowitz, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in New York
  • Kenneth Beer, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in West Palm Beach, FL
  • Beth Goldstein, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in Chapel Hill, NC
  • Joy Stewart is a professional aesthetician in Vancouver, BC

Don’t get base tans or use tanning agents

“In the 80s and perhaps even early 90s, there were common misconceptions that you get a base tan and build on that, and somehow, you were protected from the sun’s harmful rays. There is no safe sun exposure; suntanning only increases the risk of skin cancer and photoaging,” says New York dermatologist Orit Markowitz, MD. The only time she recommends gradual sun exposure is for patients with polymorphous light eruption (PMLE) in which “immediate exposure causes an unsightly and uncomfortable rash.”

Chapel Hill, NC dermatologist Beth Goldstein, MD says most doctors don’t recommend getting “base tans” to prevent sunburn. “[Base tans] only give an SPF of around four to six and create UV damage from tanning beds which are rated as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization,” says Goldstein.

A Harvard Medical School article explains that going out in the sun with a base tan is equivalent to wearing an SPF of four. This means skin can be exposed to up to four times more sun before burning than without a base tan. While this might sound like it’s better than nothing, experts would never recommend a sunscreen with an SPF of four. Additionally, tanning agents like melanotan-II are not FDA approved. They’ve also “been shown to create atypical changes in moles and reports of melanoma developing in a time sequence that is worrisome,” says Dr. Goldstein.

Do take the right supplements

Polypodium leucotomos is a common ingredient that’s believed to help protect skin from the sun. Aesthetician Joy Stewart describes this as an inside-out approach. Dr. Goldstein says it not only reduces free radical damage but also helps patients who get “sun poisoning” tolerate the sun. “This supplement is an extract of a natural fern . It has been shown to reduce sunburn cells which are a sign of skin damage from UV exposure,” she explains.

Additionally, Stewart points to a study that showed “the right balance of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA sustainably sourced from fish and carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin can help build the skin’s resistance to UV-induced burning.”

“After exposure to sun, the melanocytes that make pigment go into overdrive (this is why we tell patients to avoid sun for two weeks before and after a laser procedure),” explains West Palm Beach, FL dermatologist Kenneth Beer, MD. “The melanocyte will produce a ton of pigment to shield itself. Some of this can be helped by taking supplements.”

However, not all supplements are equal so talk to your doctor about what they recommend. Supplements like Heliocare Antioxidant Supplements ($31) and ISDIN SunISDIN Skin Supplements ($55) are popular options. They feature polypodium leucotomos and help enhance sun protection.

Stewart recommends Bend Beauty Renew + Protect ($80) as she’s seen remarkable results with clients. “It’s clinically proven to help fight free radical damage, reduce skin’s sensitivity to UV sunburn and improve your overall skin barrier health,” says Stewart. “Taking care of your skin barrier requires discipline and time.” Building up your skin’s resistant to UV take at least eight weeks of daily supplementation, she adds.

What are the benefits?

Preventing sun damage is a benefit that speaks for itself. Dr. Goldstein points out that 80 to 90 percent of skin aging (and skin cancer) comes from sun damage. Sunscreen is essential. However, it’s not always enough. Stewart notes the American Academy of Dermatology says most people only apply 25 to 50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen. Additionally, people don’t reapply enough. It’s also very easy to miss a spot, she adds. Taking supplements to boost your protection will ensure you have a safety net.

Other actions to take

In addition to supplementing, Dr. Goldstein recommends “daily use of protection that includes wearing hats, sunglasses, shirts, seeking shade, avoiding mid-day sun and applying a broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher where you cannot be protecting yourself with clothing.” She knows many people want to just rely on sunscreen, but says it’s wise to do all of the above. Taking a supplement, wearing sunscreen and using protective sun clothing is your best defense against UV damage and sunburn, says Stewart.

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