The number one thing that ages skin is sunshine. Not just the sunburn, but the relentless day-to-day exposure to the sun causes the skin damage that leads to discolored spots, wrinkles and sagging skin. And don’t be fooled as most sunscreens do not protect from all the skin-damaging rays. If you want youthful skin then your best skin care strategy is to avoid excessive sun and use a true sun protective sunblock.
Just below the spectrum of light that is visible to our eye lies the ultra-violet (UV) light spectrum. First is the longer wavelength UVA (315-400 nanometers, nm), then intermediate UVB (280-315 nm), and last the shortest wavelength UVC (100-280 nm). The shorter wavelengths are more irritating to the surface while the longer wavelengths penetrate the skin and do deeper damage.
The visible light spectrum (400-780nm) gives us our rainbow of colors, starting with violet-indigo-blue-green-yellow-orange and finally red as the light spectrum goes on up into the “infra-red” spectrum (> 780nm). Infra-red rays radiate heat and give us warmth.
UVC is actually the most damaging of the UV rays, causing the skin to burn and promoting cancer changes. UVC will even kill germs and is known as “germicidal” rays. Fortunately most all UVC is blocked by the earth’s ozone layer.
UVB causes the familiar “sunburn” by damaging the skin’s outer layer, the epidermis, leading to dark spots, fine wrinkles, broken surface capillaries, and skin cancers that arise from the epidermis. Cumulative sun exposure causes the familiar basal and squamous cell skin cancers to erupt from the skin’s epidermal layer. These are typically gray in color, either smooth or scaly lesions, that show up on the face or arms where the skin has been most exposed.
UVA causes the darkening of skin known as “suntan” and was once thought to be harmless but is now known to be very damaging to the skin. By absorbing into the deeper dermal layers UVA causes the collagen that supports our skin to simply waste away leading to thinning and sagging of the skin. UVA is responsible for much of the premature aging of skin evidenced by inflammation and dryness, and eventually uneven pigmentation, fine wrinkles, and skin cancer.
UVB exposure occurs mainly in the summer months and is worse from 10am to 4pm. It does not penetrate glass and is basically filtered out during winter months. However, the UVA rays are present all year round, all day long, and go right through glass. Even while driving the UVA rays are streaming into the auto and soaking right into exposed skin.
High altitude allows much more of the UV rays to get through the atmosphere. This explains why the mountain states have a high incidence of skin cancer! And more sun damaged, aging skin…
The well-known sun-protection-factor or SPF is misleading, outdated, and frankly worthless when it comes to insuring your skin is protected. The SPF ratings only apply to UVB rays. Many products advertise “blocking both UVB and UVA” but in fact only a tiny percentage of the UVA spectrum is really blocked – just enough to allow the marketing but not even close to the complete blockage we really need.
There are about 15 FDA approved chemicals that will absorb UV rays and are used in various combinations as sunscreens. Some examples include Octyl Salicylate, the oldest in use, Padimate O which is the most common in the US, and Octyl Methoxycinnamate which is the most common world-wide. These sunscreens block a narrow range of UVB light in the 300-315nm range, leaving the UVA spectrum untouched. Thus, other chemical absorbers, such as Oxybenzone and Avobenzone, are mixed in to give a bit more protection up into the UVA range, but they are limited in effectiveness.
Physical blockers, known as “metal oxides” are the most complete remedy for truly blocking the UVA and UVB rays. These natural occurring particles will physically block all UV rays, as well as protect from wind and block the heat from infra-red rays thus keeping the skin cooler.
Titanium dioxide, used to lighten cosmetic products, blocks most of the UV spectrum but misses a bit of UVA. Zinc Oxide really blocks the UVA spectrum well and thus is commonly blended with titanium dioxide to add full UVA coverage.
Furthermore, the actual protection offered by any and all sun-protective products relates directly to their level of concentration, how long they remain stable when exposed to sun, the film thickness applied to the skin, as well as the careful, total coverage of the exposed skin sites.
As skin goes through repeated cycles of sunburn and suntan, inflammation and skin darkening occurs, and over time the photo-aging and skin cancer. The UV rays cause damage to the skin that generates damaging “free radicals” that react and oxidize any tissue in the area. The inflammation and oxidation lead to skin breakdown and DNA damage that promotes cancer. Even the defenses against infection are impaired as the UV rays suppress the skin’s immune system.
Supplemental nutrients can be added to provide direct and indirect protection to the skin. Antioxidants such as vitamins E, C and A, and selenium help “clean up” the free radicals generated by sun damage. Bioflavonoid antioxidants such as pycnogenol from pine-bark, and resveratrol from grapes, are also found in better products. Studies describe the ability of these highly specialized antioxidant bioflavonoids to augment vitamin C, protect cells and collagen tissue, and also to strengthen blood vessels and capillaries.
I recommend several brands of sunblock. One of the highest quality brands is TIZO. I especially like it around the face as it goes on easy and doesn’t tend to get in my eyes with sweating. It also is tinted and great when used with makeup. More affordable, better for body coverage, and especially safe for kids is thinksport. Another key element for skin protection is a great sun hat. Look no further than Sunday Afternoons for a huge selection of sun hats. I wear my “sport hat” model all year long.
If you want to preserve your youthful skin, then get a high quality sunblock and apply it generously and regularly. Reapply several times during prolonged outdoor activity. Apply daily to the face and back of the hands where we see the most sun exposure. Remember, it’s easier to keep healthy skin than it is to reverse the clock of sun damage.
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.