If you’re one of the stragglers who are still ignoring the startling statistics about skin cancer (more than 2 million Americans are diagnosed each year), maybe this video will get you to finally pay attention. Photographer and videographer Thomas Leveritt has revealed what’s lying beneath people’s outer layer of skin. When an ultraviolet camera, which can show not-yet-visible changes to skin, is used, damage that hasn’t yet reached the skin’s surface is suddenly visible.
Leveritt wanted to capture people’s reactions to seeing themselves in a new light, quite literally, and asked passersby to take part in his project, a video titled “How the Sun Sees You.” “UV provides really interesting shots of people, almost from an alternate reality, or from 10 years in the future. There’s something authentic about seeing yourself in UV,” he told Yahoo Health. “It almost feels like you’re seeing your soul.”
Authenticity can be very revealing. It’s shocking to see that someone with seemingly clear and healthy skin can have freckles and age spots lurking beneath the surface. Upon seeing themselves in the UV light, most of the participants laugh uncomfortably, while others express concern. “My favorite reactions are when people feel they’re seeing something about themselves they didn’t know,” Leveritt said. “The usual self-consciousness of seeing oneself is sort of gone. It’s like you’re meeting your future self. And they’re not so bad!”
As the video — which was posted to YouTube on Monday and has already racked up more than 2 million views — points out, children are born with clear complexions, and the ones who participated in the experiment are proof of what fresh-faced truly looks like. But it is possible to maintain an unblemished epidermis into adulthood — by conscientiously using sunscreen. Leveritt drives this point home by asking the participants to apply sunscreen, and then look back into the camera. Just as glasses look black when viewed through a UV camera because they block UV light, skin gets a similar-looking effect when slathered in sunblock. Most sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher can prevent UVB rays (the ones that cause sunburn) from damaging the skin.
While this experiment might be a wakeup call, by the time you see the effects of UV light, unfortunately, the damage is already done, Josh Zeichner, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told Yahoo Health. “The key to protecting your skin from premature aging and skin cancer is daily use of sunscreen.” He tells his patients to make applying sunscreen a part of their daily regimens, just like flossing their teeth. And the excuse “I’m inside all day” doesn’t hold up, considering that UVA light can go through glass and you can end up getting a burn through your car or office window. Protecting against UVA damage is especially important because those rays penetrate the skin more deeply and are associated with the effects of photo aging such as wrinkling, leathering, and sagging.
But while there’s no way to turn back the clock completely so that one’s face has the untouched appearance of adolescence, reversing some sun damage is possible. “Your body actually has the ability to reverse some of the sun damage on its own,” Jennifer A. Stein, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, explained to Yahoo Health. For your body to be able to do that, it’s important to prevent new sun damage from occurring and give your skin some time to heal by strategically covering up with protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses; wearing sunblock at all times (even during winter, on cloudy days, and while indoors); and, perhaps most important, not using tanning beds. “Young people who are just beginning to see sun damage have the opportunity to make a difference and may be able to reverse some of that damage by practicing good sun protection habits.”
Zeichner points out that some topical treatments can help. For example, peels and lasers such as Fraxel can resurface skin and get rid of damaged cells. And the vitamin A derivative retinol can stimulate collagen production, which firms skin and increases elasticity. He also suggests a visit to a dermatologist for an evaluation and to talk about prescription medications that might help get rid of sun-damaged cells.
In some cases, a look beneath the exterior can reveal not only freckles, age and brown spots, and uneven pigmentation — all normal — but also pre-cancerous spots. In these cases, a trip to the doctor is necessary so that a medical professional can evaluate and treat the pre-cancerous cells.
If there’s a lesson to be learned to here, Leveritt says, it’s this: “You only got one skin, and you should look after it.”