This weekend I posted on social media a photograph I took of myself — fresh out of the shower after a day in the sun, my hair still dripping.
I put it out there so that my followers can see the real me: wearing only a towel, deeply tanned, spectacularly ungroomed, make-up free, moles and all. Call it, if you like, an antidote to some of the celebrity fakery that gets thrown at us so much of the time.
Looking at that selfie now, it isn’t hard to imagine the sort of comments people will have made about it. Indeed, I’m sure the eyes of many will have been instantly drawn to my deep mahogany tan.
They’ll have said, unkindly, that it ages me, that my skin is sun-damaged as opposed to sun-kissed, with rather more wrinkles than other women my age (I’m 52), who are careful to slather themselves with factor 50 sun lotion at the first hint of a sunbeam.
I put it (pictured) out there so that my followers can see the real me: wearing only a towel, deeply tanned, spectacularly ungroomed, make-up free, moles and all
In fact, the phrase ‘Ulrika’s looks have fallen victim to her love of the sun,’ will, I’m sure, have been uttered more than once.
In other words, the pasty-faced anti-sunbathing lobby strikes again. Does any of that bother me? Not one bit. Because, actually, when I look at that picture I feel only pride. And that’s because what I see is a woman who spends a great deal of time outdoors doing the things that make her truly happy, while not giving two hoots what other people have to say about it. The truth is, I’m so very glad that that woman happens to be me.
The picture in question was taken on Sunday evening. I’d just enjoyed a pampering session in the bathroom as a reward for the tiring, but deeply gratifying day of outdoor labour I’d spent keeping my garden in check.
My tan — which I happen to love because, to me, it represents light and happiness and I think makes me look healthier than when I’m pale — is testament to the uncomplicated joy I get from mowing in the blazing sun.
It also reflects the pleasure I get from some of the simpler things that life offers me: tending my vegetable patch, walking my dog, picking flowers that I grew from seeds, eating a meal alfresco with my kids while enjoying the warmth of the sun against my skin. Oh, and don’t forget the sunbathing — lying prostrate in a bikini enjoying a lazy half hour in the garden with my eyes closed.
I’m the first to admit my skin appears to have suffered as a result of that. Although, when I was a child, sunshine had the opposite effect — I suffered with eczema and the dermatologist my mum took me to urged her to buy a sun lamp and bathe my skin in salty water, which had a seemingly miraculous healing effect.
Pictured: Ulrikka Jonsson on a Malibu beach in Los Angeles after her breast reduction surgery. My tan — which I happen to love because, to me, it represents light and happiness and I think makes me look healthier than when I’m pale — is testament to the uncomplicated joy I get from mowing in the blazing sun
This ageing thing is certainly something I’ve started to increasingly notice over the past five years, although not with any great sense of alarm.
I think the fact that I’m a bit thinner these days too, which tends to be less forgiving on the face when you’re 52 than when you’re 22, doesn’t help. I inadvertently lost weight — about a stone — during a hectic time with work last year when I was running on adrenaline.
Predominantly though, I’d say those lines and wrinkles boil down to the fact I embrace whatever weather comes down from the sky above me: if it’s rain, oh well; if it’s blazing sunshine, oh boy.
I love being out in the sun. But then most Swedes do, coming from a country where you’re lucky to get five hours of daylight in the winter — never mind any real sunshine.
You only have to walk down a street in the country’s capital, Stockholm, on a cold but sunny lunchtime in January to find office workers and shoppers alike, leaning with their backs against a building, their faces pointing upwards towards the sun.
We also love the outdoors, subjecting ourselves to all kinds of weather for the sake of feeling the fresh air fill our lungs — no wonder then that we feel we’ve earned the right to enjoy the warmth of the sun whenever it makes an appearance.
The pay-off for that — prematurely aged skin — is a price I’m perfectly happy to pay. And I suspect that’s largely because, like most Swedish women, I don’t suffer from a cultural fear of ageing, which seems a terrible waste of emotional energy to me.
You’ll certainly never find me hiding in shame as time begins to take its toll on my looks. OK, my face is weathered — literally — but I’ve always admired the wrinkles and lines on older women’s faces because they tell a story.
The story mine tells is of a woman who lives every moment she can outside; of a woman who uses a tan so she doesn’t have to be a slave to her make-up brushes; of someone who hasn’t resorted to fillers or become a slave to Botox in order to hold back the years because she’s more concerned with how she feels than how she looks. And here’s the thing: exposing your skin to the sun really does make you feel good.
Pictured: Ulrika Jonnson as a television presenter as TV-AM weather girl. In fact, I’m low maintenance full stop where my skin’s concerned. I splash a bit of water on my face in the shower, and use moisturiser first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but that’s it
UV light raises your levels of serotonin, which in turn can help combat anxiety and depression. In my youth, I felt the gradual progression of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) envelop me as the winter months approached — something that a fortnightly ten minutes of heat and light provided via a sunbed really helped with, although it no doubt also left its footprint on my skin.
We need Vitamin D — the sunshine vitamin, aptly named because your body absorbs it through sunlight on the skin — to sleep well and keep our bones strong. It even helps keep blood pressure in check. I always find great irony in the fact that so many menopausal women like me go for blood tests because they feel flat and lethargic only to discover their levels of Vitamin D are low.
It then turns out they’re deficient because they’ve deliberately stayed out of the sun most of their adult lives, to keep looking as young as possible for as long as possible. That’s led to them depriving themselves of an important nutrient, meaning they’ve ended up feeling old before their time.
Of course, there’s no denying the cancer risk that goes hand in hand with excessive sun exposure, which is why I do use sunscreen: if I go out in the sun I always use SPF 30 around my eyes and SPF 50 on my lips, then a 15 on my body; higher if I’m abroad. But I don’t obsess over it, re-applying constantly — once a day, unless the sun’s really beating down, tends to be enough.
In fact, I’m low maintenance full stop where my skin’s concerned. I splash a bit of water on my face in the shower, and use moisturiser first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but that’s it.
My face cream — Creme de la Mer — is expensive because I have dry skin and need a decent one. But I don’t go for facials, and wear make-up so infrequently I don’t need a strict cleansing regime. Although, when I was on TV-AM each morning, it was a different story; the studio make-up I had to wear felt so heavy and drying I had regular facials to try and keep feeling healthy.
Growing up, my mum didn’t use sunscreen on me. Instead, she would expose me to a bit of sun then put me in the shade — the opposite of what people do nowadays. They seem to smear their kids in SPF 50 then leave them in the sun all day.
I never did anything like that with my children. Instead, I used a medium factor sun lotion, but never sunblock, relying more on the shade for protection between short bursts of sunshine.
None of them have ever burnt. That’s got a lot to do with the way their skin was able to acclimatise to the sun, building up a healthy resistance to its rays, instead.
Far better, surely, than the Brits who have no sun all year then go to Benidorm where they burn to a crisp. They’re playing a far more dangerous game and it’s something my children, who enjoy the outdoor life too, would never be daft enough to do.
So I’ve no regrets — not least because of the many messages I’ve had from women delighted that someone is prepared to admit they like sunbathing, because they say it’s their own guilty pleasure, too.
What a pity women are made to feel ashamed for enjoying the sun and not caring what that might do to their faces. I just hope that, like me, anyone who enjoyed sunbathing through lockdown will get the chance to enjoy sunning themselves again now summer proper has arrived.
I plan to make the most of the next couple of months, and to blazes with the extra couple of wrinkles I might get to show for it.
But we must all take care, warn doctors
While Ulrika might be unrepentant about her sun-worshipping, Dr Ophelia Veraitch, a consultant dermatologist at London’s Cranley Clinic (cranleyclinic.com) has seen too many cases of skin cancer not to be concerned by Britons’ sun-loving habits.
‘We know categorically that increased exposure to the sun increases your risk of skin cancers,’ she says. ‘We regularly see malignant melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, and unless these are caught very early, they are hard to treat without surgery.
‘People might think they “look better with a tan”, but they tend to think differently when they have scarring or skin grafts from having cancerous cells removed, or they’ve had to have a section of their nose cut out.’
While you need some sun exposure to generate vitamin D, the British Association of Dermatologists says the time needed is less than the amount it takes to change the colour of your skin. After that, you can’t produce any more.
So before hitting the beach, find out how damaging the sun can be . . .
DANGER OF SUN SPOTS
‘Solar lentigines, also known as sun spots or age spots, tend to occur more in fairer-skinned individuals on sun-exposed areas,’ says Dr Veraitch.
‘They happen because the UV radiation causes DNA damage in the melanocytes, the cells that are responsible for producing melanin, the pigment that colours skin. When these are working normally, they produce uniform levels of pigment resulting in even skin tone.
‘When they malfunction, certain cells start to overproduce melanin, resulting in these spots. If you only have a few, and catch them early, they can be treated with Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) or laser.
‘However, if you have any that have a darker component, it’s worth consulting your GP or dermatologist as they can progress to a type of melanoma called lentigo maligna. Caught early enough, this can be treated with a chemotherapy cream.’
FINE LINES AND WRINKLES
As we age, we develop fine lines and wrinkles, but sun exposure accelerates the pace at which this happens.
‘UV radiation causes a reaction in the skin which increases the levels of an enzyme called MMP-1,’ explains Dr Veraitch. ‘This enzyme breaks down the levels of collagen in the skin.’
Collagen, along with elastin, is one of the proteins found in skin that keeps it firm, springy and bouncy.
‘When it breaks down, you’ll find that wrinkles and fine lines form. A broad spectrum SPF with protection against both UVA and UVB has to be the foundation of any skincare regime that aims to tackle these types of problems, but using a retinoid — a form of vitamin A that can help increase cell turnover and have an anti-ageing effect — at night can also help.’
RISK OF A SAGGING FACE
Loss of collagen doesn’t just result in lines, it can also cause loss of volume in the mid-face as well. As we age, we tend to lose some volume, partly because of gravity’s effect on structures under the skin (it’s why we tend to go from having plump cheeks as children to being jowly in adulthood), and partly because fat under the skin tends to shrink, but also because we lose the collagen which forms the foundation of the skin.
As the sun accelerates collagen loss, sun damage can speed up this process.
THE PERMA-TAN PERIL
A long-term tan with a bronze hue may mean you are suffering from actinic bronzing, where skin is permanently discoloured after repeated exposure.
It’s the sort of damage you might see on people who have slathered themselves in oil for decades. This level of discolouration suggests you might be at greater risk of skin cancers, so it’s worth checking with a dermatologist before trying to reduce the damage, but if you want to try to lighten the colour, chemical peels and laser treatments can help.