Here’s one from the I-thought-so files: Sun exposure causes most of the skin damage we associate with looking older.
According to a study published in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, 80% of such signs of facial aging as dark spots, wrinkles and poor skin texture is caused by exposure to the sun’s UV rays. And the more fair someone’s complexion, the worse the damage becomes.
Now that what you’ve always suspected has turned out to be true, it becomes a matter of protecting yourself against excessive exposure. The best protection involves both the outside, such as appropriate clothing and sunscreen, and the inside, most notably antioxidants that help your skin fend off damage from within.
Most of the sunlight that reaches the Earth’s (and your skin’s) surface consists of two types of ultraviolet light, UVA and UVB.
Although UVA is the weaker variety it is far more prevalent, making up 95% of the sunlight we receive. Its intensity doesn’t diminish during the winter months, and it can penetrate clouds and glass. “UVA is the dominant tanning ray, and we now know that tanning causes cumulative damage over time,” states the Skin Cancer Foundation.
In contrast, UVB is “the chief cause of skin reddening and sunburn. It plays a key role in the development of skin cancer,” according to the SCF. UVB intensity varies; it is most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. from April to October in the US. However, the SCF warns that “UVB rays can burn and damage your skin year-round, especially at high altitudes and on reflective surfaces such as snow or ice.”
Setting the Perimeter
To cut down on how much UV you receive, dermatologists endorse staying inside between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. But it’s unrealistic to avoid the sun entirely because of what is called incidental exposure—think driving a car, walking a dog or sitting beside a sunny window.
What’s more, summer is a time of outdoor fun, although some people throw precaution to the wind. “I don’t want anybody worshipping the sun,” says Mary Field, CAMS, of the Institute of European and Natural Skin Care in Gig Harbor, Washington. “It’s healthy to be in the great outdoors, but there’s a big difference between enjoying the outdoors and parking it on the beach; you still need to protect yourself.”
Your single best topical sun defense is a well-formulated sunscreen, preferably one that is mineral-based. “The only beneficial minerals to look for in sunscreen are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide,” says Bryan Barron, author (with Paula Begoun), of Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me (Beginning Press).
“Some researchers believe zinc oxide provides superior UVA (anti-wrinkle) protection, but that’s debatable.” He adds that zinc oxide tends to feel a bit heavier, but both are great for sensitive skin.
Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which protects against both UVA and UVB, with a skin protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, a half-hour before exposure. Reapply at least every two hours, more often if you’re in the water.
It doesn’t matter how good your sunscreen is if you don’t apply it properly. “Most people don’t use enough sunscreen,” says Janet Lin, MD, a dermatologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “If you only apply a thin layer, your protection won’t reach the SPF factor claimed on the label. The best procedure is to layer: Apply one good coating from head to toe and then put on another layer—even before the first is dry.” (Don’t forget an SPF-rated lip balm as well.)
If you spend significant time outdoors, consider purchasing UVA/UVB protective clothing; hats, shirts and pants are available with up to SPF 60 protection. And always wear sunglasses, preferably the wraparound kind, to protect not only your eyes but also the delicate skin around them.
There is no substitute for using a high-quality sunscreen and taking other steps to reduce your exposure to the sun’s UV rays. But it’s also helpful to ensure your diet contains plenty of antioxidants, substances that can neutralize cell-damaging molecules called free radicals generated in the skin through sun exposure.
Certain nutrients may help boost your sunscreen’s effects. Two members of the carotenoid family, lutein and zeaxanthin, found in foods such as eggs and leafy greens, help neutralize free radicals. Other skin-saving nutrients include beta carotene, found in carrots and spinach, and astaxanthin, found in seafood.
A number of herbs have also been found to support skin health and help ward off sun damage. They include:
• Calaguala: This extract is taken from a tropical fern known as Polypodium decumanum. It is used by herbalists for vitiligo, which causes the skin to lose pigmentation, and has been found in scientific studies to help offset the inflammatory reaction that marks psoriasis. Calaguala offers sun protection and helps prevent skin aging.
• Gotu kola: Another tropical plant, gotu kola (Centella asiatica) has a long history of use in Ayurveda, India’s system of traditional medicine, for all sorts of skin conditions including leprosy and psoriasis, and to treat wounds. It has been found to strengthen the skin and increase its blood supply while reducing the appearance of wrinkles.
• Camu camu: This shrub (Myrciaria dubia) is found throughout the Amazon rainforests of Brazil and Peru. It yields berries that provide vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that also promotes production of collagen, the protein that gives skin its texture and suppleness.
• Amla: This extract is taken from a plant known by many names including Indian gooseberry (Phyllanthus emblica). Used traditionally to enhance hair growth and revitalize eyesight, amla supplies vitamin C along with minerals and amino acids.
So it’s true—UV exposure does cause you to look older than you may feel. The good news is that adopting a sun-protective lifestyle, including antioxidant supplementation, may help you avoid the worst of the sun’s skin-damaging effects.