Despite the political debates, scientists are overwhelmingly confident that the fossil fuels we are putting in our atmosphere are causing global climate change. You’ve probably heard about the rising temperatures and falling pH of the ocean, but you might not be aware that climate change is also affecting us directly by changing the relationship between the sun and our skin.“Today, the sun is brighter than it has been anytime in the last four centuries,” explains Drew Shindell, Ph.D., a scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Additionally, the seasons have shifted—spring is longer, summer is longer and fall is longer. This means people are spending more time outdoors. All of these things combined mean seasonless sun protection is crucial.”
Year-round sun protection for your skin is made ever more important as climate change further depletes the ozone layer, already in trouble because of human activities. By the late 1970s, scientists realized that certain chemicals we were using, called chlorofluorocarbons, found in refrigerator coolant and aerosol cans, were making their way into the stratosphere and eroding the UV-blocking ozone layer. By 1987, there was so little protective ozone in the stratosphere over Antarctica that global lawmakers decided these chemicals were too dangerous to go unchecked. (Remember the hole in the ozone?) They established the Montreal Protocol, which set strict limits on their use, and 25 years later, the ozone layer has rebounded some, but it is still 50 to 70 years away from returning to pre-1980s levels.
“UV exposure increases by about 33 percent for every 20 percent ozone layer loss,” says Dr. Shindell. Medical doctors fear what all this atmospheric science means for us. “Climate change has affected UV exposure, which is higher now than ever,” explains dermatologist Doris Day, M.D. And it’s getting worse.
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When scientists modeled climate change in a laboratory setting, a 2012 Harvard study published in the journal Science found that the predicted ozone depletion will dramatically increase the penetration of all kinds of UV rays, which includes the well-known A and B rays as well as UV C rays. UV C rays are not currently a huge concern because our ozone layer does a good job of keeping them from getting through. But they are the most dangerous type of UV radiation, and as climate change weakens the protective ozone, they have the potential to become a very serious problem. That 33 percent rise in UV exposure Shindell mentions means a roughly 33 percent boost in the rate of skin cancer.
To make matters worse, scientists have found that elevated temperatures may also increase the risk of skin cancers, so the combined effects of climate change spell disaster for our skin. “Statistics show one in five Americans will develop skin cancer each year, and one person dies nearly every hour in this country from melanoma,” says Dr. Day, who presented findings alongside Shindell at Neutrogena’s Sun Summit to address how the changing climate will affect skin. “I’m seeing skin cancer in woman as young as in their 20s. Much of this has to do with genetics and sun exposure. We can’t control our genetics, but there is so much we can do to be sun smart to help lower that statistic.”
Skin cancers occur because UV rays induce changes at the DNA level. While most cells that are damaged undergo programmed cell death, called apoptosis, sometimes the changes disrupt this innate protective mechanism, leading to cells whose growth goes unchecked. They continue to multiply when they shouldn’t, creating tumors that can grow and spread if not caught quickly enough. Melanoma is by far the worst type of skin cancer. Though it accounts for less than 5 percent of cases, it is responsible for three-quarters of skin cancer related deaths. More than 60,000 people worldwide die from melanoma every year.
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But cancer isn’t the only skin condition likely to worsen with climate change. “People do not always consider all of the effects unprotected sun has on the skin,” says Day. “This includes thickened, leathery skin, dilated blood vessels, mottled pigmentation and skin fragility.”
The most obvious sun-induced changes in our skin are freckles. Freckles occur when a melanin-producing cell is damaged, causing it to pump out more than the normal amount of pigment. The largest freckles are called age or liver spots, though they are caused by the sun, not aging. Scars and other over-pigmented areas can also be worsened by sun. UV rays can cause the opposite effect, too, leaving white spots where damaged melanin-producing cells are rendered dysfunctional.
The sun also can lead to recurrent skin irritations. The outer layer of skin, called the stratum corneum, is weakened by UV exposure. When this crucial protective barrier is compromised, skin is less able to regulate moisture and can become dry and flaky. When skin lacks moisture, the sebaceous glands often overproduce oils in an attempt to compensate, leading to conditions like acne.
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Sun damage is one of the most prominent signs of aging, and billions of dollars are spent every year trying to counteract the sun’s negative effects. In the dermis, UV radiation breaks down the collagen that gives skin healthy elasticity. Over time, the loss of collagen leads to wrinkles and sagging skin.
Even without climate change, we have plenty of reasons to worry about sun exposure. Climate change will only worsen the troubles we are already having.The key is to protect skin from sun damage, and to protect it now. Being sun smart and limiting UV exposure when you’re young will dramatically improve the appearance of your skin over time. “Simple measures can be taken to incorporate sun protection into your daily routine,” says Day. She recommends using SPF 15 or higher every day, and notes that it can be in your moisturizer for a seamless addition to your morning regimen.
“The sun does not care what you are doing—gardening, walking on the beach or driving,” says Day. “The key is to stay protected, no matter the season.”
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