People generally slather on sunscreen for special outdoor occasions, like heading to the beach or attending a picnic. While sunscreen protects against sunburns and skin cancer, there is another benefit: It helps reduce signs of skin aging.
Evidence shows that using sunscreen every day helps slow down the skin’s aging process.
According to one groundbreaking study, people who use broad-spectrum sunscreen on a daily basis experience 24 percent less skin aging than those who use sunscreen only intermittently. The study, published in the influential Annals of Internal Medicine, followed more than 900 people over a four year period. It found that even participants who started daily sunscreen applications in their 40s and 50s showed reduced signs of skin aging.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen every day that you plan to be outside, instead of just on special occasions. The sun emits harmful rays year-round, even on cloudy days.
There are two types of sun rays that can damage your skin in different ways. UVB rays are responsible for 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 says E. Victor Ross, MD, director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “Sun exposure diminishes your skin’s immune response, which can allow those early abnormal cells to continue to grow into cancer," Dr. Ross says.
Skin damage from sun exposure, meanwhile occurs for a few reasons, Dr. Ross says.
“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,” Dr. Ross says.
When it comes to sunscreen, broad spectrum sunscreen works best because it protects you from UVB and UVA rays, that is from sunburn and skin cancer.
Sunscreens that offer only UVB protection may keep you from burning, but they don’t help protect against skin cancer.
People using a UVB sunscreen may decide to stay out in the sun for longer periods because they aren’t developing a sunburn and thus may feel they are adequately protected. But they may be unknowingly exposing themselves to longer levels of deeper penetrating UVA rays (or aging rays). Longer exposure to UVA rays increases damage to the deeper skin and enhances aging.
Dr. Ross advises his patients to use sunscreen that offers broad spectrum protection and has a minimum SPF of 30, which blocks about 97 percent of UV rays. SPF stands for sun protection factor.
A 2016 study found that people who used broad spectrun sunscreen with SPF of 30 daily for one year showed improvements in skin clarity and texture.
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 and discuss treatment options with you.
Advances in skin care — such as new topical medications, light therapies and lasers treatments — can help reduce some of the visible signs of aging. For example, fine lines, brown spots and broken blood vessels can be reduced by properly designed light-based therapies.
Applying sunscreen regularly to protect your skin from further sun damage is also important.
Enjoy the sun but not too much of it and always with skin protection.
“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-the-time-friend.”