Damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause your skin to age prematurely — think wrinkles. The good news is that premature aging due to UV rays is largely preventable. By taking steps to avoid excessive sun exposure and protecting your skin when you’re in the sun, you can help keep your skin healthier and postpone wrinkles for years to come.
The Sun’s Spectrum of Ultraviolet Rays
Radiation energy emitted from the sun reaches the earth in the form of UV rays. Ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere provides some protection, but the breakdown of the ozone layer that has occurred over the past few decades is making us even more vulnerable to UV rays damage. Even on overcast days you’re still being exposed to UV rays — “cloud cover” offers no protective value and UVA rays penetrate window glass.
Two types of UV rays reach the earth, UVA and UVB (the sun also emits UVC rays, but these are absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere). UVA rays are the rays that cause tanning as well as wrinkles and other signs of premature aging, and UVB rays cause sunburns and skin cancer. But both ultimately damage your skin. UV rays are more powerful during the summer months. They are also stronger in high altitude areas and the closer you get to the equator — geographic factors that increase your risk of premature aging.
Damage Done by UV Rays
When UV rays reach your skin, they interact with a natural chemical in the skin called melanin. Melanin is your first line of protection and absorbs UV rays in order to shield your skin against sun damage; this chemical reaction is what gives skin a tan. When the amount of UV rays you’re exposed to exceeds the protection provided by melanin, however, you get a sunburn.
Repeated overexposure to UV rays can lead to various forms of skin damage including:
- Fine lines
- Age spots, freckles, and other discolorations
- Scaly red patches, called actinic keratoses, thought to be the beginnings of skin cancer
- Tough, leathery skin that feels and looks dry and rough
As if these signs of aging weren’t enough, the sun causes numerous types of skin cancer, including life-threatening melanoma; eye damage such as cataracts, which impair vision; and a weakened immune system, leaving you less able to fight off infections.
Break the UV Ray Cycle
You can help protect your skin from wrinkles and other sun damage with the following steps:
- Use sunscreen. Every day, generously apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, choosing products that provide what’s called “broad spectrum” protection against both UVA and UVB rays. When you’re in the sun for prolonged periods of time, reapply sunscreen every two hours.
- Wear protective clothing. Whenever possible, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses to further shield your skin from the sun. Consider clothes made from fabrics with built-in SPF.
- Avoid peak sun hours. Stay in the shade during the hottest part of the day, usually from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are at their most intense.
- Follow the UV Index. The UV Index is a daily indicator of how much UV radiation is expected to reach the earth — think of it as a pollen count reading for your skin. Developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Weather Service, it’s usually broadcast along with your local weather report. A rating of 1 to 2 is considered low, and anything over 11 is very high. The higher the number, the more you risk overexposure to UV rays.
- Never use tanning beds. Tanning beds emit the same UV rays that come from the sun, so skip them. Contrary to popular belief, they are not a “safer” way to tan.
- Bronze yourself with sunless tanning products. If you like the look of sunkissed skin, consider do-it-yourself tanning products or splurge on a salon spray-on tan. But remember to still use sunscreen and take all other precautions against UV rays when you’re going to be outside.
While the sun may feel warm and inviting, exposure to UV rays comes at a cost. Take steps to protect yourself from the havoc that sun damage can wreak on your skin.