As the body's largest organ, the skin accounts for roughly 18% of an adult's weight. It serves as a protective outer layer that keeps in moisture while keeping out invasive organisms such as infections. Skin additionally protects our organs against injury and helps regulate the body's temperature, and also has self-healing capabilities.
As we age, skin becomes dryer and thinner. Repeated movements of facial muscles, such as frowning, smiling or squinting, cause wrinkles over time. Stress, gravity and obesity also contribute to aging skin. And because the skin is thinner, it is more susceptible to bruising. Maintaining healthy skin starts with preventing skin damage. Wrinkles, age spots and leathery patches are all the result of skin damage from overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
The premature aging of the skin from ultraviolet light exposure is called photoaging. Photoaging occurs when ultraviolet radiation penetrates deep into the dermis, damaging collagen fibers and causing the increased production of abnormal elastin. This breakdown in fundamental skin structures leads to deep wrinkles and fine lines, as well as discolored (age or liver spots), leathery and loose skin.
When ultraviolet light penetrates the epidermis it stimulates melanin, the substance responsible for skin pigmentation. Up to a point, the melanin absorbs dangerous UV rays before they do serious damage. Melanin increases in response to sun exposure, which is what causes the skin to tan—this is a sign of skin damage, not health.
Because of the ultraviolet radiation it emits, the sun is inherently dangerous to human skin. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology stipulates that there is no safe way to tan. Tanning is the skin's natural response to damage from the sun. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency proclaims that everybody, regardless of race or ethnicity, is subject to the potential adverse effects of overexposure to the sun. That's why everyone needs to protect their skin from the sun every day. Roughly 90% of nonmelanoma cancers are attributable to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. That's why prevention involves:
- Staying out of the sun during peak hours (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.).
- Covering up the arms and legs with protective clothing.
- Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
- Using sunscreens year round with a SPF of 30 or greater. Look for products that use the term "broad spectrum" as they work on both UVA and UVB rays. Physical blockers (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are the best.
- Checking your skin monthly and contacting your dermatologist if you notice any changes.
- Getting regular skin examinations. It is advised that adults over 40 get an annual exam with a dermatologist.
Protecting Yourself from Sun Exposure
- Choose a sunscreen with a minimum SPF rating of 30 or greater. Look for products that use the term "broad spectrum" ast hey work on both UVA and UVB rays. Physical blockers (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are the best.
- Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you head out into the sun to give it time to absorb into the skin.
- Apply sunscreens liberally. Use at least one ounce (a shot glass size) to cover the entire body.
- Use a lip balm with SPF 15 or greater to protect the lips from sun damage.
- Re-apply sunscreen immediately after going into water or sweating.
- Re-apply sunscreen every 2 to 3 hours.
- Use sunscreen every day regardless of the weather.
- Wear sunglasses to protect the eyes from UV rays.
- Wear wide-brimmed hats and protective clothing to limit skin exposure to the sun.
- Stay in the shade whenever possible.
- Avoid using tanning beds.
Sunscreens and Sunblocks
The sun emits two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays that are harmful to human skin. UVA rays penetrate deep into the dermis and lead to wrinkles, age spots and skin cancers. UVB rays are responsible for causing sunburn, cataracts, immune system damage, and skin cancers. Melanoma is thought to be associated with severe UVB sunburns that occur before the age of 20.
Sunblocks literally physically block the UV rays instead of absorbing them. Key active ingredients for sunblock success are titanium oxide and zinc oxide. Sunscreens absorb ultraviolet light so that it does not reach the skin. Sunblocks are preferred.
There is no sunscreen or sunblock that works 100%. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the manufacture and promotion of sunscreens. Sunscreens are given a SPF (Sun Protection Factor) number that indicates how long a person can remain in the sun without UVB burning. It is recommended that people use products with a SPF of 30 or greater. Sunscreens are not generally recommended for infants six months old or younger. Infants should be kept in the shade as much as possible and should be dressed in protective clothing to prevent any skin exposure and damage.
There is no such thing as "all-day protection" or "waterproof" sunscreen. No matter what the SPF number, sunscreens need to be re-applied every 2 to 3 hours. Products that claim to be "waterproof" can only protect against sunburn up to 80 minutes in the water. Products labeled "water resistant" can only protect against sunburn up to 40 minutes in the water.
Even in the worst weather, 80% of the sun's UV rays can pass through the clouds. Additionally, sand reflects 25% of the sun's UV rays and snow reflects 80% of the sun's UV rays. That's why sunscreen needs to be worn every day and in every type of weather and climate. The sun's intensity is also impacted by altitude (the higher the altitude the greater the sun exposure), time of year (summer months) and location (the closer to the Equator, the greater the sun exposure).
According to the American Academy of Dermatology and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ultraviolet (UV) radiation from tanning beds, tanning booths and sun lamps are known carcinogens (cancer-causing substances). Exposure to UV radiation during indoor tanning has been proven to increase the risk of all skin cancers, including melanomas, squamous cell carcinomas and basal cell carcinomas. In fact, the risk of melanoma increases by 75 percent when indoor tanning devices are used before the age of 30. The UV radiation during indoor tanning also leads to skin aging, hyper - and hypopigmentation, immune suppression and eye damage, such as cataracts.
Therefore, the use of tanning beds, tanning booths and sun lamps is not recommended by dermatologists.
Sunburn & Treatment
Sunburns develop when UV exposure is greater than the skin's natural ability to protect against it. If you experience a sunburn, get out of the sun and cover the exposed skin as soon as possible. A sunburn will begin to appear within 4 to 6 hours after getting out of the sun and will fully appear within 12 to 24 hours. Mild burns cause redness and some peeling after a few days. They can be treated with cold compresses on the damaged area, cool baths, moisturizers to prevent dryness and over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams to relieve any pain or itching. It is also important to drink plenty of fluids when you experience any type of sunburn.
More serious burns lead to blisters, which can be painful. It is important not to rupture blisters as this slows down the natural healing process and may lead to infection. You may want to cover blisters with gauze to keep them clean. Stay out of the sun until your skin has fully healed. In the most severe cases, oral steroids may be prescribed to decrease inflammation, along with pain-relieving medication.
For additinoal information regarding skin cancer types, prevention and detection, follow these American Association of Dermatology educational links:
Anti-Aging Skincare Routine
While aging in the skin is unavoidable, a healthy skincare routine throughout life can reduce the symptoms. Be sure to:
- Wash your face using a gentle cleanser and lukewarm water twice a day.
- Pat skin dry; don't rub it dry.
- Exfoliate the skin twice a week to remove dead cells.
- Apply a moisturizer to skin immediately after a shower or bath.
- Wear sunscreen with a SPF of at least 30 every day.
- For women who wear makeup, be sure to leave time each day when the skin is clean and free of makeup.
- Do not use tanning beds.
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Get an adequate amount of sleep every day.
- Quit smoking.
- Avoid stress.
- Conduct a monthly self-examination of your skin to detect any changes that might lead to cancer.
- See your dermatologist once a year or more often, depending on your skin history.
There is a wide range of options for slowing down the affects of aging skin. See the Cosmetic Dermatology section of this website for more information about:
- Chemical peels
- Growth factors
- Laser Resurfacing