Family Health: Sunscreen minimizes skin aging, study says

It’s good advice: Before you step outside, smooth on some sunscreen to protect yourself from a painful sunburn, as well as sun damage that can lead to skin cancer.

Now it turns out that sunscreen does you another favor. According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, it helps minimize the effects of aging on your skin. Ultraviolet light from the sun ages skin in a number of ways. This photo-aging makes skin less elastic and adds wrinkles and a dry, patchy appearance. It also causes visible small blood vessels.

To find out if sunscreen can prevent these effects, researchers in Australia recruited about 900 adults between the ages of 25 and 55 to participate in a randomized, controlled study. About half were told to apply SPF 15-plus sunscreen every morning, year-round, to their head, neck, arms and hands. They were instructed to reapply after a few hours outdoors, or if they went swimming or sweated heavily. The other group was told to use sunscreen at their own discretion. All were exposed to about the same amount of sun during the study.

The daily users eventually fell short of their instructions – by the end of the study only 77 percent of them reported using sunscreen three to four days a week. But among the discretionary group, only 33 percent used it that often. And the results were clear: After 4 1/2 years, the regular sunscreen users were 24 percent less likely to show increased skin aging than those who used it less often. That was true regardless of their age, sex, skin color or whether they smoked or had a history of skin cancer.

The same study also looked at whether taking a beta-carotene supplement could reduce photo-aging. It found no difference between groups taking the supplement and those taking a placebo.

This is the first study to show that regular use of sunscreen can reduce the aging effects of the sun. The American Academy of Dermatologists recommends using at least SPF 30, even in winter. That’s because UV rays reach your skin year-round, even on cloudy days.

Here are more sunscreen tips from the AAD:

  • Use a product that’s water resistant and broad spectrum. That means it protects from both UV-A and UV-B rays.
  • Check the expiration date. Sunscreen that’s too old may not protect you.
  • Don’t wait until you’re in the sun to apply sunscreen. It must be absorbed by your skin to work, and that takes about 15 minutes.
  • Slather it on–the amount you use is at least as important as the SPF. Most adults should use 1 ounce – about a palmful – to cover all exposed skin areas.
  • Reapply every two hours, or right after you go swimming or sweat excessively.

This Family Health column has been provided by Community Physician Group.