Here Comes the Sun

Dr. Annette Czernik Advises How to Prevent and Treat Sun Damage

Admit it: You’ve worshipped the sun.

Whether you’ve spent a day sprawled on a chaise by the pool or just lifted your face in the warmth of the noontime beams during your lunch break, you’ve tempted fate for that ‘healthy glow.’

“There’s a chemical reaction going on when you’re in the sunshine. It releases dopamine in the brain and the more you do it, the more you want to do it,” says Annette Czernik, M.D., FAAD, principal dermatologist at DermMedical in Wilton.

And, while a little innocent sunbathing might have improved everything from your acne and eczema to your blue mood and sleep patterns, it also probably did a number on your skin. That bright yellow star we revolve around produces dangerous sun damage, the umbrella term for signs of photoaging and freckling as well as simple and more serious skin cancers and precancerous lesions or actinic keratosis.

Sunlight travels as both visible and invisible rays or waves. Longer waves are harmless to humans, but too much exposure to the shorter ones, such as ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB rays), can upset the processes in your skin cells, affecting skin’s growth and appearance. In essence, they make skin less elastic and, over time, it can become wrinkled, leathery and both thickened and thinned. 

The peeling of a sunburn repairs the outer layers, but DNA damage can cause changes in cells that make them rapidly grow and divide, possibly leading to both cancerous and benign tumors.

Each year, more than two million people are treated for basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, according to the National Institutes of Health. A more serious type, melanoma, is diagnosed in more than 68,000 Americans each year. 

Dr. Czernik, a board-certified dermatologist and three-time Mt. Sinai Teacher of the Year, says she’s seen an uptick in potentially life-threatening melanomas this year, as those who put off doctor’s visits during the pandemic come back for their annual full-body skin checks.

“There’s been a delay in health care during the pandemic,” she notes, “and with melanoma, early detection is important.”

There is some good news: While those in their teens and 20s might still love the look of a summertime tan, most patients she sees know how to combat the sun’s dangerous rays.

“You can tell how old people are by seeing who’s photo-protecting,” says Dr. Czernik, who practiced in New York City for about a decade, earning NY SuperDoctor honors three times.

These days, protection includes a full checklist before heading out for a day of fun in the sun. Dr. Czernik encourages her patients to start their skin routine with an application of antioxidant serum rich in vitamins C and E and ferulic acid. Allow that to soak into the skin and then apply a good-quality sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

While there are some sunscreen brands that include added vitamins, Dr. Czernik says several powerful antioxidants are not stable, such as vitamin C, and don’t incorporate easily into sunscreen. She recommends applying them separately.

“It gives an extra photoprotective boost that complements the action of the sunscreen,” she advises.

In addition, she encourages her sports and gardening-loving patients to ditch the baseball caps and straw sun hats and opt for broad-brimmed varieties, especially those made of material tested for UV protection. Speaking of which, she’s a fan of long sleeve swimsuits and other sun-protecting fashions at the beach or club. And children will benefit from frequent sunscreen re-application, especially around exposed face, ears and hands.

Watch the clock, too, as the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. What if your youngster doesn’t know how to tell time?

“I say look at your shadow,” Dr. Czernik says. “If it’s smaller than you, seek shade.”

Once the damage is done, a dermatologist can recommend if specific products and treatments might be beneficial in slowing the aging clock. 

A topical chemotherapeutic cream, such as 5-fluorouracil can treat the rough patches typical of precancerous lesions or actinic keratosis. Patients can speak with their dermatologist about in-office treatments, such as liquid nitrogen, photodynamic therapy and chemical peels or Fraxel laser. Post-treatment tretinoin cream can help reduce the recurrence of actinic keratosis, which is often found on the face, scalp and back of the hands.

The latter two treatments, as well as intense pulse light (IPL), can help with sunspots and other evidence of photoaging, Dr. Czernik suggests.

As a mother and a doctor, the Fairfield County native believes families should be diligent, but also take a reasonable attitude when it comes to sun skincare. The new powdered form of sunscreen is a godsend for protecting the scalp and keeping squirmy kids safe at the beach, for example.

“You cannot and should not entirely avoid the sun. I say, do your best,” she says.


Dr. Czernik, a board-certified dermatologist and three-time Mt. Sinai Teacher of the Year, says she’s seen an uptick in potentially life-threatening melanomas this year, as those who put off doctor’s visits during the pandemic come back for their annual full-body skin checks.

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