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 — especially if you apply sunscreen more regularly.
Evidence shows that using sunscreen every day not only reduces the risk of skin cancer but also helps slow down the skin’s aging process.
According to one 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 2013 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, meaning not only special occasions. That's because 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. “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, not all products are created equal.
Many sunscreens offer only 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 rays (or aging rays). 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 denotes only your protection from burning from UVB rays (or burning 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 protecting your 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-the-time-friend.”