If I could go back in time, I'd physically pull myself out of the tanning bed and serve up an hour-long lecture about how terrible it is to bake in an ironically coffin-shaped bed of UV bulbs. Then, I'd show Past Self the UV images I had taken of Future Self's skin at age 25. Past Self would be horrified, vow never to tan again, and skip off into a lifetime of sunscreen, shade, and beautiful skin. But I don't have a time machine, so I'm here to spread the word to all of you.
Allow me to explain.
Thankfully, my past tanning bed usage was short-lived, but my sunbathing days were many. Prior to finding out that I had some pre-cancerous moles on my back, I'd lie out in the sun for as long as I could stand to try and get some color. One summer, I even opted to lie out covered in olive oil to speed up the tanning process (yes—olive oil, like I was a chicken cutlet). Leading up to having those moles removed, I thought I was invincible—there's no way sautéeing in the sun could have any adverse effect on me, I so ignorantly thought. But later on, the visible signs of damage on my back would prove otherwise, which made me think: What damage have I done that I can't see?
I took a trip over to Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC and asked for a UV photo of my skin. The image generator, called the Visia, captures surface and subsurface skin conditions like hyperpigmentation and UV damage, which are generally invisible in normal lighting conditions (as evidenced below).
Here's me a few months ago. Aside from the occasional breakouts, my skin is generally very smooth, has minimal fine lines on my forehead, and only the slightest bit of redness around my nose and mouth.
What lies beneath, however, is a different story. Check out the results of my Visia images below.
What Causes Discoloration?
Yikes! I can't believe how many UV spots are on my face, especially on my lips. Granted, I was never very diligent about applying an SPF lip balm, so I guess that's what I get. As for a few of the dark spots on my cheek and forehead… I had a breakout in those areas, so technically those aren't UV damage, but still, I'm pretty horrified at how many spots I have at only 25 years old.
I chatted with Dendy Engelman, MD, of Manhattan Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery, who shed some light on what this discoloration means and how to address it. Most of the dark areas are called poikiloderma, aka benign areas of discoloration that are most commonly associated with sun damage. Some of the other tiny spots like those across the bridge of my nose are solar lentigines (a fancy word for sun-induced freckles), which are damage nevertheless.
Lastly, Engelman explained that the dark parentheses-shaped splotches surrounding the outer sides of my mouth are melasma, which is actually brought on by birth control (which I've been taking for about eight years).
Meet the Expert
Dendy Engelman, MD is a board-certified dermatologic surgeon with a focus on cosmetic enhancement procedures for both the face and body as well as skin cancer treatment. She is also a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Society of Dermatologic Surgery, and American College of Mohs Surgery.
How To Treat Sun Damage
Engelman assured me that sun damage and hyperpigmentation can be treated, but in-office treatments and skincare products can't undo the formation of cancerous cells, which is why preventative measures (like SPF and limiting your exposure to the sun), first and foremost, should be top priorities at a very young age.
If the sun damage has already been done, try a regimen of topical antioxidants with vitamin C, sunscreen with zinc and titanium dioxide for maximum protection, intense pulsed light (because it reaches deep within the skin), an in-office pigment peel, and eye cream.
Engelman suggests Derm Institute Antioxidant Hydration Gel Masque, $110 (Since Engelman is a big fan, and her skin is a dream, I'll take her advice thank you very much) and Nerium International Age-Defying Eye Serum, $80.
This experience was incredibly eye-opening, and I recommend everyone get a UV image done sooner rather than later to assess their own sun damage, as well as routine visits to the dermatologist for a full-body scan. As for my tanning days, I'm going to stick to sunless tanner from now on and leave the olive oil in the kitchen where it belongs.
This story was written at an earlier date and has since been updated.
Nofal A, Salah E. Acquired poikiloderma: proposed classification and diagnostic approach. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2013;69(3):e129-e140. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2012.06.015
Handel AC, Miot LD, Miot HA. Melasma: a clinical and epidemiological review. An Bras Dermatol. 2014;89(5):771-782. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.20143063