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Sun Exposure and Aging: How The Sun Affects Your Skin

How is it that something that makes you look so healthy and glowing in your younger years is responsible for aging, sagged skin? 

What’s the link between sun exposure and premature aging? 

You’ve heard all about skin cancer, and you keep a close eye out for suspicious changes in your skin, but you aren’t entirely sure what your sunbathing days and glowing summer tan might lead to in thirty years.

You’d also love to know what you can do about it.

What Normally Happens to the Skin as You Age?

Your body is in the process of aging from the moment you’re born, of course, and your skin is no exception. The skin provides a protective barrier for your innards from the outside world, and it’s easy to take it for granted compared to more critical-sounding organs like the heart and lungs. 

But the skin is your body’s largest organ. It doesn’t just hold your insides in place; it protects you from the elements and pathogens, helps with body temperature regulation, and provides that all-important sense of touch. Despite its tenacity, it makes sense that your skin sees quite a bit of wear and tear over the years.

The skin has a natural elasticity, so it can bounce back into place when stretched. Over time, though, this elasticity begins to weaken, and skin starts sagging. As you age, your skin also gets thinner. 

You can’t ignore your genes. They play a role in determining whether you’re 60 and don’t look a day over 40, or the other way around. These aging processes are natural and happen to everyone, though you can take steps to slow the process. 

Many of the issues with aging skin, however, are due to sun exposure and lifestyle factors.

How Does the Sun Damage the Skin?

A look through history reveals that sun-kissed skin wasn’t always a sign of glowing vitality and health; that’s a more recent trend. It turns out the ghostly, pale victorians may have had it right. Avoiding sun exposure is one of the top ways to protect your skin from the look of premature aging.

Remarkably, research indicates that sun-damaged skin causes approximately 80% of the aging in facial skin. The damage comes from ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

There are two types of ultraviolet radiation that damage the skin: UVA and UVB. UVA rays take a deep dive, penetrating from the epidermis down to the dermis. These rays can do damage at all levels. They have an impact on the cells as well as the collagen and elastin fibers that make the skin resilient and firm. They can also harm the capillaries. UVB rays only strike the surface skin layer, but they hit it hard. These rays can do some serious damage to the DNA in the epidermis, leading to premature aging and cancer.

What If You Have a Naturally Darker Complexion? 

People used to believe that only those with fair skin had to worry about sun-damage. Recent research indicates that people with darker complexions still experience significant skin damage from sun exposure. 

Still, it typically takes longer (up to 50 years) in people with the darkest skin pigmentation.

How Do You Know If You Have Sun-Damaged Skin?

While a little sun exposure is great for nutrient intake and energy, it doesn’t take much for our skin to plead for mercy. There are very few of us who haven’t experienced the stinging pain of burnt skin, whether from falling asleep in the sun or spending hours on the ball field without protection. The idea that a sunburn indicates immediate damage isn’t hard to grasp when you’re hurting from its effects. However, changes to skin color indicate that some level of long-term damage has occurred.

The signs of skin damage and premature aging can begin early in life. Some people see the signs appear in their teens or early 20s. Symptoms of damage and premature aging include:

  • The appearance of freckles, liver spots or age spots
  • Leathery skin and a rough texture
  • Wrinkles, especially around the eyes
  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Spider veins on the nose or chest
  • Red and blotchy skin

A quick way to determine whether sun exposure is causing premature aging for you is to compare skin in an area that hasn’t been exposed to the sun with the skin in an area that has. 

How Much Sun Exposure Is Too Much?

The amount of sun exposure you can take each day varies with skin type and environmental factors. Knowing your limits helps prevent damage while letting you soak up the goodness of natural sunlight, but you can’t always tell when you’ve had too much until it’s too late. 

Some basic guidelines can help.

First, use some level of sun protection every day on your skin. “Regular SPF is the single most important thing you can do for your skin,” says Nava MD’s Dr. Lilliana Ramírez García. “If you take care of your skin early in life, it will take care of you later in life.” Many daily skincare products like foundation or moisturizer have a sun protection ingredient right in the formula.

However you approach it, daily SPF is critical to long-lasting, youthful skin.

Second, when the sun is higher in the sky, you’re exposed to more intense UVB light, so always slather on the sunscreen for midday activities. 

Also, the higher up you are in elevation or the closer to the equator, the faster those UV rays get to work on your skin. 

And don’t think you’re safe just because it’s winter. Snow is highly reflective, so you get hit with those rays twice, once on their way down to the ground and again when they reflect back towards the atmosphere. 

Finally, and slightly unrelated, avoid smoking. Cigarette smoke and nicotine are known to accelerate the aging process as they contribute to narrowed blood vessels and less oxygen available to skin cells, a higher risk of certain skin cancers, and a weakened immune system. You've probably seen it before: a lifetime of smoking can make people look years older -- and saggier -- than they are. 

Can You Make Your Skin Look More Youthful?

While you can’t totally reverse sun damage, you can get back some of that youthful glow and fade wrinkles and fine lines. 

Retinoids are the workhorse of the skincare world, able to accelerate skin cell turnover and healing to reduce the look of wrinkles. Not all retinoids are the same, and these synthetic Vitamin A derivatives vary in capabilities. Some, like retinol, are available in over-the-counter skincare creams. Tretinoin, meanwhile, is a prescription ingredient that’s been helping men and women fight the look of aging, acne, and more for decades, with great success. 

At Nava MD, we use prescription ingredients like tretinoin and niacinamide, which can help with inflammation, together in custom formulations for each patient. Nava MD’s dermatologists work with you to determine solutions specific to your situation. It’s like a dermatology visit online, with prescription skincare shipped to your door, if appropriate. 

Get the skin you want with the comfort of a doctor’s order, all from home. Begin your journey to healthier skin today with a free consultation.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency