Sun Exposure and Aging

For centuries, man has searched for the Fountain of Youth. Billions of dollars are spent every year on skin care products that we hope will eliminate wrinkles, reduce redness, dryness and itching, lighten age spots, and give us moist, youthful skin. The most effective way to keep your skin looking young is to stay out of the sun. The UV rays in sunlight are the major cause of aging. Sun damage may not be apparent while we are young, but it will be later in life.

Exposure to sunlight eventually causes the elastic tissues (elastin and collagen) in our skin to stretch and become slack. Gravity pulls at the skin and causes it to sag. Skin will become thinner and more susceptible to bruising and tearing and will take longer to heal from injury. Loss of fat under the skin makes underlying structures, particularly the veins and bones, more prominent under our thinning skin. These changes are inevitable but can be delayed by avoiding exposure to the sun.

As we age, we lose oil and sweat glands, which contribute to dry skin. Low humidity, from overheated homes in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, also robs our skin of moisture. Sun exposure, dehydration, smoking, and stress may also cause dry skin. Hot baths and the overuse of soaps and perfumes can make dry skin worse. Using a humidifier will add necessary moisture to the air, and moisturizers used after bathing can help retain water in the skin. Dry skin can be very itchy and cause loss of sleep and irritability. It can also be a symptom of a medical condition such as diabetes or kidney disease, or the side effect of medications. If you have unbearably itchy skin, consult your physician.

Sun-damaged skin may improve with use of sun protection and proper skin care. Skin has the ability to repair itself, but nothing will completely erase the harmful effects of the sun. Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the most direct. Use sun block with at least SPF15 protection, and wear UV blocking sunglasses to avoid squinting, which contributes to wrinkles around the eyes. Wear a hat with a wide brim, and loose, lightweight, long sleeve shirts and long pants to shield your skin from sunlight’s damaging rays. Use of sun blocks and sun screens can help prevent the appearance of age spots and prevent further damage. There are also many moisturizers and makeup products on the market now which contain sun blocking agents.

There are many over-the-counter products on the market that promise to reverse the effects of aging, but do little except to soothe dry skin. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) may help to reduce wrinkles, spots, and other signs of aging, but there are some concerns about long-term effects and adverse reactions. Using AHAs may make you more sensitive the sun, so it is advised that people using such products to take steps to protect themselves from the sun.

Dermatologists can offer treatment for aging skin to improve its appearance. Prescriptions creams may reduce fine wrinkles, dark spots and rough skin. It won’t eliminate wrinkles or restore your skin to its younger, healthier state. Chemical peels, laser therapy, and dermabrasion can be performed to minimize wrinkles, irregular pigmentation, and minor scars, allowing the layer beneath to regenerate for a more youthful appearance. Specific treatment is determined by the severity of the damage, your age, overall health, and medical history.

No discussion of the sun’s damaging effects on your skin is complete without mentioning the possibility of skin cancer. UV radiation from the sun’s rays is the major cause of skin cancer. Forty to fifty percent of Americans who live to age 65 have skin cancer at least one time (National Institute of Aging). Fair-skinned people and those who live in sunny climates have the highest chance of developing the disease. Caught in the early stages, it is treatable and curable. Check your skin regularly for any changes. Not all skin cancers look the same. It may appear as an itchy, scaly spot, a small, pale, waxy bump, a red, firm lump, or a sore that won’t heal. Any change that lasts for longer than two weeks should be examined by a physician.

Aging is an unavoidable fact of life, but proper use of sun blocks, clothing, and avoiding excessive exposure to the harmful effects of the sun can slow down the effects of this inevitable process. It could even save your life.


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