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Photoaging is the biggest cause of skin aging - what is it and how do I prevent it?!

What is Photoaging?

This blog is about photoaging and how to prevent it. Photoaging is aging to the skin, such as fine lines/wrinkles, pigmentation and textural changes, caused by damage by the sun.

Aging skin

The sun emits various rays, and when these rays hit the skin, they can cause damage to various structures, then lead to the appearance of skin aging. In fact, we actually know that the one factor that contributes to skin aging THE MOST is exposure to the sun and for those of you who really want to help reduce the signs of skin aging protecting the skin from the sun is really really important.  I will now talk about sun protection with particular reference to sunscreen, as well as when you should be using it, what you should be looking out for when buying it taking into considerations your skin type, some other benefits sunscreen may provide and supplements you should consider.

How does the sun damage my skin?

The Sun emits various wavelength of light, some of which are not even visible to the naked eye. The ones that we are particularly concerned about are UVA (Ultraviolet A) and UVB (Ultraviolet B). UVC (Ultraviolet C) is also emitted, which would be particularly damaging, but this is absorbed by the ozone layer. UVB is responsible for damaging the surface of your skin, and causing redness and inflammation when you spend too much time in the sun and is effectively what causes sunburn.

The effect of the sun on the skin

UVA is able to penetrate slightly deeper than the surface of the skin, and although not as potent as UVB, it can reach deeper layers and result in damage to structures, such as collagen and elastin, which are incredibly important for the health of your skin, and particular to prevent photoaging.  Collagen and elastin do not produce readily and so once damaged stay like this for a long time.  Your body responds by producing melanin (a pigment) to help absorb and dissipate the UV rays and this is why you tan or find more freckles appearingContrary to what you may think, when this happens it really is a sign of too much sun exposure and your body is trying desperately to reduce the damage done to your cells and structures in your skin!

What should I look for when purchasing Sunscreen?

Things to consider when buying sunscreen

1) UVB protection

For the reasons just discussed, it is important that the sunscreen protects you from both UVA and UVB but there is more data coming out that suggests both infra-red and visible light will also cause photoaging.  There are some products that do also protect against infra-red and so it may be worth looking out for sunscreen that do this too.  SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and this essentially indicates the level of protection against UVB rays, which I mentioned earlier are the primary cause of sunburn. So for example, SPF 30 means it takes 30 times longer for the skin to burn compared to not using sunscreenThe data shows that ideally the SPF you should be using is 30. When I question my patients many of them will tell me that they have an SPF included in their make up but it is usually much lower and so not offering the ideal benefit. 

2) UVA Protection (Broad spectrum)

The sunscreen should be broad spectrum meaning it offers protection against both UVB and UVA. If it not broad spectrum it will not protect against UVA! You may also find a star rating. This typically indicates the balance of UVA protection. The higher the number of stars (normally out of five), the greater the balance of protection of UVA rays to UVB rays (i.e. five stars offers the highest level of UVA protection but you must ensure you are using an SPF of 30 or above - I normally suggest 50).

At this point many of you may be asking I’ve exposed myself to the sun for many years and a lot of damage has already been done - is there any point in using a sunscreen?

The answer is yes, as not only does this help reduce the chances of skin cancer it also prevents further damage to your skin and we can help in clinic to repair the damaged collagen and elastin that you may have already!

3) Physical vs Chemical Sunscreens

Broadly speaking there are two types of sunscreen - physical (mineral) sunscreens and chemical sunscreens.

This is a comparison of each one:

Physical Sunscreens:

  • Active Ingredients: Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

  • Mechanism: Act as a physical barrier, reflecting and scattering UV rays away from the skin.

  • Pros: Effective immediately upon application, suitable for sensitive skin, less likely to cause skin irritation.

  • Cons: May leave a white cast on the skin, can be thicker and harder to blend.

Tip: You can avoid a ghostly face by opting for newer formulas with tinted zinc oxide.

Chemical Sunscreens:

  • Active Ingredients: Various chemical compounds like avobenzone, octocrylene, or octinoxate.

  • Mechanism: Absorb UV rays, converting them into heat, and then releasing the heat from the skin.

  • Pros: Typically lighter in texture, can be more cosmetically elegant, often transparent on the skin.

  • Cons: May take about 15-30 minutes to become effective after application, potential for skin irritation in some individuals.

So for those of you with more sensitive skin or skin conditions such rosacea or melasma a Physical Sunscreen would be better for daily use but for those that do not have sensitive skin a chemical one may be better as they do tend to be lighter.

4) Non-comedogenic

For those of you who are acne prone - products labeled as non-comedogenic are designed to be less likely to clog pores and contribute to the formation of acne

When do I need to wear Sunscreen?

By now you may be thinking that “why is he writing this blog in winter, surely I only have to wear sunscreen in the summer only!”

This is a common misconception and we need to be wearing sunscreen through the year. For a dermatologist this would be a non-negotiable in a daily skin regime as we have so much data of the damaging nature of the suns rays to the skin both when it is sunny and not actually sunny (as the rays can travel through clouds etc).

So the take home message is wear sunscreen daily and my suggestion is to keep it somewhere, where you won’t forget to put it on everyday like next to your toothbrush, by your make up or even on the table next to your door!

Other important points

I have mentioned all the benefits of sunscreen to prevent the skin ageing but the other major benefit is that will help reduce the risk of skin cancer too, which is the most common type of cancer in the UK.  It is really important to remember that aside from selecting an appropriate sunscreen it is important to wear wide-brimmed hat to shield your face and neck and long sleeve tops and trousers, which are specifically UV protective, to physically stop the rays!

It is important to remember that the sunlight helps the body produce Vitamin D which is important for many things such as bone health, the immune system, muscle health amongst other and the NHS states “since it's difficult for people to get enough vitamin D from food alone, everyone (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D during the autumn and winter”.  If you are avoiding the sun and/or applying daily sunscreen please consider a daily supplement all year around but please consult your doctor first.

I hope this blog has helped clarified things but ultimately the best sunscreen is the one you wear everyday! If you are struggling to find one or if you have any more questions please do not hesitate to contact us at or visit us at one of our clinics in Esher, Cranleigh or Guildford!

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