Active Ingredients + UV Damage
Skincare

Everything you need to know about active ingredients and damage-causing UV rays

Skincare that contains active ingredients can leave skin vulnerable to increased sun damage. Here’s how to protect your skin all year round.

Little compares to the feeling of finally finding a skincare routine that gives visible results after consistent, dedicated use. Trust me – when I found the cleanser-serum-moisturiser-SPF combo that actively treated the pigmentation on my cheeks, breakout-prone lower face and dehydrated forehead, it felt like opening the Chamber of Secrets.

However, the active ingredients that help to brighten, smooth and add plumpness to my naturally sallow, dry skin are only so effective because of their potency.

“Active ingredients are the elements of the skincare product that actually do the work to impact the skin or help treat a concern. For example, exfoliating acids such as lactic acid or salicylic acid, vitamin C, retinoids or niacinamide,” explains aesthetician and No7 ambassador, Dija Ayodele.

However, these common skincare ingredients can also result in increased cell turnover that brings newer, more vulnerable skin to the surface – vulnerable skin that can easily be damaged by harmful radiation from the sun.

So, how do you make your active-filled skincare routine work for the sunnier months ahead? Our experts are here to help:

  • Award-winning aesthetician and author Abigail James
  • Aesthetician, author, founder of The Black Skin Directory and No7 ambassador Dija Ayodele
  • Dr Catherine Borysiewicz, consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic

How does the sun affect skin?

“The sun affects the skin in so many ways, primarily through the emission of UV radiation – we know these as UVA and UVB rays. There is also UVC but this has less of an impact on the skin. UVA and UVB rays have the ability to penetrate the skin,” explains aesthetician Abigail James.

The difference between UVA and UVB rays

“UVB impacts the outer layer of the skin (the epidermis) more, and is responsible for most of the burn. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and play a large role in premature skin ageing. UVA is also not able to be shielded by glass, so it can and will penetrate through windows. 

“Both UVA and UVB rays are responsible for potential change within the skin resulting in skin cancers, as well as a breakdown in collagen production, resulting in free radical damage, stimulation of melanocyte activity (the princess of tanning) that can cause wrinkles, pigmentation and tougher skin texture.”

What should we know about using active ingredients and sun exposure?

“Although helpful if used carefully, active ingredients can be irritating to the skin. This can show up on the skin as increased sensitivity, dryness and peeling. Skin in this state is more vulnerable to UV exposure and, in particular, can aggravate post-inflammatory pigmentation – causing a tendency to develop discolouration of the skin,” explains Dr Catherine Borysiewicz, consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic.

A quick refresh on common active ingredients:

  • Acids (glycolic, salicylic, mandelic, lactic, citric, malic)
  • Retinol (a derivative of vitamin A) and other retinoids
  • Vitamins A, C and E

1. Think about when to introduce active ingredients into your skincare routine

“We often advise patients to start using retinol products in the autumn and winter months to allow their skin to acclimatise to the products at a time of relatively lower UVB exposure.”

2. Understand what to look for in an SPF

“The SPF on your sunscreen label refers to the level of protection from UVB. UVB is felt to be most responsible for sunburn and has strong links to melanoma and basal cell skin cancers.

“However, your skin also needs protection from UVA, which is able to cause the same cancer-causing damage to your cells and actually penetrate deeper into the skin layers, making it the culprit for causing photoaging damage. UVA protection level is usually listed as a 5* or ‘UVA shield’ rating on the product packaging.

“Blue light or High Energy Visible Light (HEVL) is the light that’s all around us and can also cause damage to our skin, so protection from this is also important – especially for people struggling with areas of hyperpigmentation, age spots and melasma.

“In order to get this broad-spectrum coverage against UVA, UVB and HEVL, look for an SPF that protects against all three.”

3. Consider a multi-tasking SPF to ensure consistent UV protection

“Sunscreens can now have added moisturiser to hydrate skin and antioxidants to reduce oxidative damage to the skin following UV and pollution exposure. Using multi-tasking products simplifies skincare steps and prevents congestion. Further ingredients can be found to combat specific skin concerns including sunspots and acne.”

Can you still use active ingredients in the sun?

“You absolutely can still use retinoids and other active ingredients in the sun,” affirms Ayodele. 

“Still, it is essential to remember to protect your skin from any potential sensitivity with sensible sun awareness and reapplying sunscreen regularly. So, with or without using active ingredients in your skincare, you still need to be vigilant about your sunscreen use.

“It’s important to remain generally sun aware – wearing a large hat and clothes covering your body, staying in the shade where possible and avoiding the sun at peak hours (between 11am and 4pm).”

The bottom line on using active ingredients and UV damage

It will come as no surprise that wearing a broad spectrum SPF (and reapplying it regularly) every single day is the best thing you can do to protect your skin from sun-induced damage. However, there are specific concerns that necessitate the use of active ingredients which also have an important role to play in our routines. 

Cutting down on actives when you know you’ll be out in the sun is only part of the puzzle – instead, getting into a good rhythm of finding an SPF that works for you, minimising the amount of time you spend in direct sunlight and mitigating the impact of blue light will serve you well in the long term. Prevention is the name of the game, friends!

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Main image: Getty