Most people think of slathering on sunscreen for special outdoor occasions, like heading to the beach or attending a picnic. New research, however, shows that applying sun protection every day can not only reduce the risk of skin cancer, but also help slow down the skin’s aging process.
The study tracked over 900 people age 55 or younger for four years. During that time, participants who used a broad-spectrum sunscreen on a daily basis had 24 percent less skin aging than participants that used sunscreen intermittently. Even participants who started daily sunscreen applications in their 40s and 50s showed reduced signs of skin aging.
“Skin damage from sun exposure occurs for a few reasons,” explains E. Victor Ross, MD, director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at Scripps Clinic. “Sun exposure depletes collagen, which keeps the skin smooth and firm. It can dilate blood vessels to give skin a red tone. And it causes the brown pigment in the skin to be more pronounced, which can make the skin look blotchy. It also creates something called elastotic material, which creates a cobblestone appearance in the skin.”
There are two types of sun rays that can damage your skin in different ways. UVB rays are responsible sunburns while UVA rays can lead to aging and the development of skin cancers.
“Our skin is constantly creating abnormal cells that have the potential to evolve into cancers, but in most cases, the immune system finds them early and knocks them out,” says Dr. Ross. “Sun exposure diminishes your skin’s immune response, which can allow those early abnormal cells to continue to grow into cancer.”
When it comes to sunscreen, not all products are created equal. Many sunscreens only offer UVB protection, so while they may keep you from burning, they don’t help protect against skin cancer. People using a UVB sunscreen may even decide to stay out in the sun for longer periods of time because they aren’t developing a sunburn and may feel adequately protected. In this case, they are exposing themselves to longer levels of deeper penetrating UVA light. The longer exposure to the UVA rays increases damage to the deeper skin and enhances aging.
Dr. Ross advises his patients to use a minimum SPF of 30. SPF stands for sun protection factor, which only denotes your protection from burning from UVB rays. Therefore, he stresses that his patients check labels and use a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
Other ways to prevent skin damage from the sun include:
- Staying out of the sun during the early afternoon hours, when the UV index is at its highest
- Wearing protective clothing to cover exposed skin, including shirts that cover the chest and arms
- Wearing hats to prevent sun exposure to the head and face
- Finding shade during outdoor activities
If your skin already has damage from too much sun exposure, your dermatologist may be able to help. Advances in skin care such as new topical medications, light therapies and lasers treatments can help reduce some of the visible signs of aging. Specifically, fine lines, brown spots, and broken blood vessels can be reduced by properly designed light-based therapies. It’s also never too late to start protect skin from further damage with a daily application of sunscreen.
“The best thing people can do to prevent skin damage and possible skin cancer is to change their thinking about the sun,” adds Dr. Ross. “Especially in San Diego, we love the sun, but we need to see it more as a sometime-enemy than as an all-time-friend.”
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