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Sunscreen indoors? Experts say UVA can still age skin through windows


Having your home-office space next to a large window can be great for your mood, your eyes and your productivity. But if the sun is shining through, it could be harmful to your skin.

Experts in dermatology say wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen — even while indoors — is necessary to block out the UVA rays that might not visibly tan your skin as well as UVB, but will play a role in damaging it.

"There's two different types of sun protection with sunscreen," said Dr. Diane Wong, a cosmetic physician and owner of the Glow Medi Spa in Toronto. "One is a UVB protectant against direct rays when you're in the sun, and the other is UVA protection, which is more of a physical block that's needed during the winter or through glass.

"If you're sitting beside a big bright window and you're not putting on your SPF, you have no UVA protection and you can damage your skin. So that's an important thing to remember."

The Skin Cancer Foundation's website says UVA rays are less intense than UVB, but they penetrate the skin more deeply.

The Foundation, based out of New York, says exposure to UVA "causes genetic damage to cells on the innermost part of your top layer of skin, where most skin cancers occur." UVB, meanwhile, does its damage on the outermost layers of the skin, with tans, burns and blistering a result of overexposure. UVB does not penetrate through glass.

Dr. Victoria Taraska, a dermatologist and medical director at the Derm Centre in Winnipeg, says the amount of UVA exposure coming in from your windows will be restricted, but "you're still definitely getting it."

While there's also some concern about blue light from laptops, cell phone and television screens, Taraska says the risk there is "very low compared to UV."

People with underlying skin conditions may be more affected by screen light, though.

"We tend to ask people, especially if they have melasma (a pigmentation disorder that causes brown or grey patches to appear on the skin), to use a physical block or sunscreen with some iron oxide in it when they're at the computer," Taraska said.

For some people, the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in clearing some more common skin issues like acne.

Staying indoors has meant less exposure to outdoor pollutants that would normally clog pores. Limiting makeup application, which Wong described as a "vicious cycle" for people with problematic skin, has also helped.

"This is a great time for your skin to really breathe and to get it back to its baseline," she said. "A lot of the time makeup is congesting the skin. ... We're putting it on to hide blemishes, hide inflammation.

"So for some people, they're rejoicing. They're saying, 'Oh my gosh, my skin is better than it's ever been.'"

Taraska believes there's nothing wrong with sticking to a "non-comedogenic oil-free makeup regime" — using products that won't clog pores — during the pandemic.

With an increased reliance on social media and virtual means of connecting, she says it's natural to want to look more presentable during a Zoom meeting or a FaceTime call with friends.

Taraska said the pandemic does provide a good time to improve and increase our skin-care regimen, though.

"A lot of times we're in the rat race and we don't have time to do all those steps we should be doing, like putting on vitamin C in the morning or retinol or glycolic at night, for example," she said. "So this is a good time to give yourself a bit of a pampering."

Not everyone is experiencing better skin during the pandemic, however.

Wong says many people may see a worsening of their conditions due to stress or diet changes, and new acne and redness can be signs of that.

"Our skin is a reflection of us, of what we're putting into our bodies, how our emotional health is," she said. "If we're going through a lot of stress right now, which a lot of people are — they're out of work and they're in isolation — their skin may actually be more challenging than usual because of the increase in the hormonal response to cortisol levels and inflammation."

Taraska says keeping up with an exercise schedule, avoiding processed carbohydrates and sugar, and drinking plenty of water can help get skin back on track.

"We talk about COVID carbs, everyone grabbing for the carbs and we're all getting COVID chubby," she said. "So that definitely plays a role in our skin condition, especially when our mental health has been impacted (by) the pandemic."

At-home treatments, like face masks and peels, can be helpful in getting skin conditions under control.

While exfoliating masks or scrubs can help remove dryness that many people experience in their "post-winter skin," Wong cautions people not to use anything too harsh or aggressive. Those can cause more harm — redness, inflammation and sensitivity — than good.

She also says its best to tailor skin care regimens to specific needs rather than looking for a one-size-fits-all solution.

Taraska tends to tell her patients to stay away from charcoal masks, which she said can sometimes harshly pull off skin cells, and recommends products with hyaluronic acid or green tea instead.

Devoting time to a skin care routine can do more than just improve the quality of your skin, Taraska added.

"At a time like this pampering yourself can really help with your mental health — do some face masks, give yourself a facial massage," she said. "That can decrease your stress and improve your lymphatic circulation and swelling.

"So it can lift your spirits and do wonders for your skin at the same time."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2020. 

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press

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