What's the best way to prevent wrinkles and skin cancer? The number one cause of wrinkles is sun damage—not old age.No matter what your age, lifestyle, or geographic location, your skin is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays (UVA and UVB radiation), which can cause irreversible damage to your skin by decreasing its ability to synthesize collagen and elastin. Sun damage can result from long-term or cumulative exposure over the years, or it can show up years after severe sunburn. Sun damage can cause the following damage:
- Worsening wrinkles
- Tough, leathery, wrinkled, blotchy skin
- Precancerous growths called actinic keratosis, which are dark, flaky, hardened areas of skin
- Basal or squamous cell carcinoma skin cancers
- Melanoma skin cancer which can show up years after severe sunburn
Tips to minimize sun damage
Sun exposure is one of the easiest skin damages to avoid, if you’re willing to take a few extra minutes every day to slather on some sunscreen. Some of the new sunscreen products are spray-on lotions that are easier to apply and reduce missed spots. A couple of minutes is all you need to get a thorough application—and the result can be lifesaving.
Protecting your skin from damaging UV radiation is possible; we recommend the following tactics to keep the sun’s damage to a minimum:
- Make sure that your sunscreen is effective against both UVA and UVB rays.
- Apply a liberal amount of a double-duty sunscreen with SPF 15 daily; low dose daily sunscreen is more effective in preventing damage than occasional use of a higher SPF.
- Look for makeup that has sunscreen in it so that when you put on your face, you also apply your daily dose of sunscreen on your most delicate area.
- Completely cover your skin with a thin layer of sunscreen; most people don’t put enough on.
- Don’t wait until the last minute; sunscreen takes 20 to 30 minutes to soak into the skin to be effective, so don’t just slap your sunscreen on right before you head out the door.
- If you use topical retinoid products on your skin for exfoliation or any other reason, you’re more likely to have sun damage, due to the loss of some of your body’s first layer of defense. Use a higher SPF and apply diligently.
- If you’re going to have continual sun exposure, reapply sunscreen 30 minutes after exposure begins and then every 2 to 3 hours, and after activities that may wash away the coverage (swimming and sweating).
- Don’t be afraid to wear a hat. Many hats are very effective at blocking sun from the head and face.
- If bugs bother you and you use sunscreen and insect repellent together, use a higher SPF sunscreen. Insect repellent decreases the effectiveness of sunscreen by one third.
Sunscreen—what’s in it?
Sunscreen ingredients (17 are approved for use in sunscreen) fall into one of two categories: absorbers and blockers, also called reflectors. Absorbing ingredients absorb UV rays before they can penetrate your skin, and blockers are physical barriers to absorption. Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) or oxybenzone are examples of chemicals in sunscreens that absorb UV rays. Zinc, a thick white paste is an example of a blocker.
Your sunscreen should contain both blockers and absorbers, and should include ingredients that block UVA rays (cause skin aging) as well as UVB rays (cause sunburn).
For UVA protection, your sunscreen label should list one of the following active ingredients:
- Zinc oxide, a blocker
- Titanium dioxide, a blocker
- Avobenzone or butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane (Parsol 1789, Eusolex 9020, Escalol 517, and others), which block UVA and UVB
- Ecamsule (Mexoryl), which absorbs UVA rays
Conundrum! Choosing a sunscreen
As you look at the array of sunscreens available you may be unsure of whether to buy one with a 15, 30, or even 50 SPF (Sun Protection Factor). According to the Federal Drug Administration, a product’s SPF number tells you how long you can stay in the sun before getting burned. An SPF 15 product lets you stay in the sun 15 times longer than you would normally be able to without getting burned. If you normally stay in the sun for 15 minutes before you start turning pink, using SPF 15 will allow you to stay in the sun approximately 3 ½ hours before you start burning.
In addition to telling you how much longer you can stay outside, the following SPFs block a certain percentage of the sun’s UVB rays:
- SPF 2 blocks about 50 percent of UVB rays
- SPF 10 blocks about 85 percent of UVB rays
- SPF 15 blocks about 95 percent of UVB rays
- SPF 30 blocks about 97 percent of UVB rays
Note: An SPF over 30 doesn’t increase the amount of blockage; it just increases the length of time you can stay in the sun without burning
Consider the UV index (strength of the sun’s ultraviolet rays), skin type, how frequently you’re reapplying, and whether you’re in water when choosing a proper SPF. All these factors may make a higher SPF more appropriate for you.
We highly recommend applying and reapplying sunscreen, but we know that it isn’t always easy or convenient. Take these additional preventative measures to protect your skin against the damaging effects of the sun’s radiation:
- Remember that sun exposure is more intense at higher altitudes and close to the equator; in both cases the sun’s rays have to travel less distance through the atmosphere. For every 1,000 feet you rise in altitude, your sun exposure increases 2 percent. Grass, sand, snow, ice and water all increase sun exposure as well, as much as 20 to 30 percent in the case of sand.
- Avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
- Wear protective clothing and wide-brimmed hat when you’re outside (UVA rays are present even on cloudy days).
Scary skin stats
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Does that surprise you? Here’s even more startling news:
- Globally between 2 and 3 million non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 melanoma skin cancers occur each year.
- According to the American Cancer Society, about 7,800 adults in the U.S. die of skin cancer each year.
- Melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, can spread to other parts of the body quickly
- Melanoma is the leading cause of cancer death among women ages 25 to 29
- Melanoma is second only to lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer in women ages 30 to 34.
The good news, though is that you can largely prevent skin cancer by practicing consistent skincare protection from UV ray exposure.
*Agin, B., & Perkins, S. (2008). Healthy aging for dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub.
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