With so many products on the market that claim to reverse the signs of aging and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, it’s hard to know where to begin. However, there is one science-based anti-aging product that has been proven to prevent premature aging; sunscreen!
As many dermatologists and aestheticians will tell you:
Sunscreen is THE BEST thing you can do for your skin on a daily basis. In fact, when it comes to preventing premature aging, sunscreen is your skincare superhero!
So what makes sunscreen so important, and how does it prevent premature aging? Well, the short answer is that sunscreen protects your skin from the UltraViolet (UV) radiation produced by the sun.
There are 3 types of UV rays; UVA, UVB, & UVC. With UVA having the longest wavelength and UVC having the shortest. Due to the short wavelength of UVC rays, they are absorbed by the atmosphere before they can reach the surface of the earth or your exposed skin. For this reason, you may have only heard of UVA and UVB .
UVB rays penetrate the surface layer of the skin (the epidermis) and can cause damage to the cells there. This causes an inflammatory response that results in pain and redness .
UVB = UVBurning: These are the rays that cause sunburn. UVB protection is measured by Sun Protection Factor (SPF).
UVA rays have the longest wavelength out of the three UV rays and can penetrate the deeper layer of the skin (the dermis). The damage done here is not noticeable in the short-term (i.e. no sunburn) but appears later on down the line as premature aging, pigmentation, and in some cases skin cancer .
UVA = UVAging: These are they rays that are responsible for premature aging. There currently isn’t a standardised way of measuring UVA protection in sunscreens.
Natural Aging Vs Photo-Aging
Scientists believe that premature aging due to UV light (photo-aging) is responsible for the majority of facial ageing by breaking down collagen and elastic fibres in the skin . Photo-aging is different from the natural aging process of the skin .
As you naturally age, you lose some of the fat padding in your face resulting in fine wrinkling and thinning skin . Naturally aged skin is also, usually, smooth and unblemished. Premature aging from sun exposure causes the loss of skin elasticity which results in deeper wrinkles, brown marks, and dry and leathery skin .
Science-Backed Anti-Aging: Sunscreen Prevents Premature-Aging
Applying sunscreen daily can prevent premature aging .
For example, an Australian study randomly assigned 903 adults into four groups. Two groups applied a broad-spectrum (both UVA & UVB protection) sunscreen daily with one group given an antioxidant supplement and one group given a placebo. The other two groups used the sunscreen as they usually would with one group given the same antioxidant supplement and the other group given the placebo. All groups had images taken of the surface of their skin. These images were rated by independent assessors who were unaware of the group allocations .
While the antioxidant appeared to have little effect on skin aging after a four-year period, the participants who applied sunscreen daily appeared younger. In fact, their skin appeared not to have aged at all . This was a particularly strong study as it had a large sample and used a randomised controlled design (considered the ‘gold standard’ research design).
The basic takeaway message from the study is that daily sunscreen use delays skin aging!
What If You’re Not Outside?
If you’re still not sold on the science-based anti-aging benefits of sunscreen and are thinking “daily sunscreen is unnecessary, I work in an office all day!”, I have more evidence for you! Does your office have windows? Do you drive to work? Did you know that about 50% of UVA rays are also able to pass through glass?
Yes, that’s right! While UVB rays are mostly absorbed by glass, which means you are unlikely to get sunburnt sitting in your office or car (if the windows are closed), sun-damage can still occur!
For example, one study looked at facial aging asymmetry in people whose jobs or activities exposed them to sunlight through a nearby window (e.g. having their office desk next to a window). The study found that the window-exposed side of the participants’ faces appeared older. specifically, the sun-exposed side had more wrinkles, deeper crows feet, lower skin elasticity, and duller and drier skin . This study provides evidence that premature aging can still occur from sun-exposure through glass. However, the study had a small sample size and recruited people who already had visible facial asymmetry. This suggests more evidence is needed.
As well as signs of premature aging, skin cancers are also more common on the left side of the face. This is largely due to exposure to UV light while driving  (this finding is from American research so the drivers-side of the car would be the left-hand side).
Even when you’re not outside you are still exposed to UVA rays which will contribute to premature aging.
So There You Have It!
Your bathroom cabinet may be overflowing with expensive face creams that claim to reverse the signs of aging, but if you’re not using sunscreen daily then you are fighting a losing battle! Our desire to see results straight away often means that we look for quick treatments rather than working on preventing the issue in the first place.
Applying sunscreen today will not make you look five years younger instantly but continue to apply it daily and science suggests you can slow down facial skin aging dramatically.
Some Practical Advice:
Make sure your sunscreen is broad spectrum (has both UVA and UVB protection) and SPF30 or above.
Beware of foundations and moisturisers that claim to provide sun protection as they often only protect from UVB. Not only are these creams allowing the aging UVA rays through and providing you with a false sense of security, but the amount you would have to apply to get the claimed SPF protection would leave you looking pretty caked in make-up. You would be much better off using a good quality broad-spectrum sunscreen as a moisturiser/primer.
Make sure you apply sunscreen all year-round as, even on cloudy and wet winter days, you are still exposed to UV light and the aging effects of UVA rays.
Finally, it is worth noting that some research has caused controversy over certain sunscreen ingredients, that has led to people believing that sunscreen is bad for you. However, there are plenty of sunscreen options without these ingredients.
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- Hughes, M., Williams, G., Baker, P., Green, A. (2013). ‘Sunscreen and Prevention of Skin Aging: A Randomized Trial’, Annals of Internal Medicine, 158 (11), 781-790.
- Mac-Mary, S., Sainthillier, JM., Jeudy, A., Sladen, C., Williams, C., Bell, M., & Humbert, P. (2010). ‘Assessment of cumulative exposure to UVA through the study of asymmetrical facial skin aging’. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 5, 277-284.
- Butler, ST., & Fosko, SW. (2010) ‘Increased prevalence of left-sided skin cancers.’ Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 63(6), 1006-10.
Laura is a skincare addict and sunscreen enthusiast with more than 10 years of experience working in healthcare and over 5 years of experience working as a nurse. She has experience in plastic and reconstructive surgery, dermatology, and aesthetics and has received training in laser treatments. Laura is currently working in healthcare education and writes for ScienceBecomesHer in her spare time. Read More.