Photoaging. It sounds like a name of the newest Instagram filter, right? Unfortunately, photoaging doesn’t make us look better in photos. In fact, it does quite the opposite.
The premature aging of your skin caused by repeated exposure to UV radiation from the sun or artificial UV sources—such as tanning beds—is what we call photoaging, and differs from chronological aging in a number of ways. The sun hits us with these harmful UV rays naturally, but the artificial UV rays from tanning beds are just as damaging.
What does it look like?
Signs of photoaging include spider veins on the nose, cheeks and neck, various pigmented spots, such as freckles, solar lentigines (known as age or liver spots), and uneven skin color.
It also shows in general loss of skin tone in sun-exposed areas. With continued sun exposure over several years, wrinkles around the eyes and mouth increase in number and become deep creases; forehead frown lines set in and are visible when not frowning.
Repeated sun exposure can also cause what are commonly called age spots, or liver spots. They don't have anything to do with your liver but have everything to do with the sun.
An ‘age spot' is actually a solar lentigo – a small bit of pigmentation caused by sun exposure. Age spots are usually found on the hands, arms, and face, and on the back in men.
Simply put, the damaging effects of UV rays from the sun can actually alter the normal structures of the skin. While your skin may repair many of the mutations caused by UV rays, sometimes the damage is too great and the affected cells may die. When the skin isn’t able to fully repair and mutations occur, this can result in premature aging (and, in more serious cases, even skin cancer).
What puts us under risk
Your skin type and the amount of unprotected sun exposure you get will determine risk. Fair-skinned people with blond or red hair and skin that usually burns with sun exposure are at greatest risk.
Those who spend extended periods in the sun through outdoor work or recreation also fall into the high-risk group. The amount of time spent in the sunlight over a lifetime is a key risk factor for photoaging.
Men are affected by this more frequently than women. The presentation is more severe in Caucasians, especially those with Fitzpatrick skin types 1 and 2.
Photoaging can begin as early as in the teen years or early 20s.
The truth behind the tan
Dermatologists say the increasing signs of early photoaging have to do with our habits of staying in the sun. Starting in the late 1940s, society decided that tanned skin looked healthy. The healthy tanned look was considered socially desirable.
As a result, skin changes from habitual exposure to sunlight are now more common and more extensive and appear at an earlier age than they did in the 1940s.
Elderly people now seldom exhibit skin changes associated solely with aging; some changes have been caused by habitual exposure to the sun.
The consequences of sun exposure are both cosmetic and medical. Cosmetic changes include leathering of the skin, increased wrinkling, and reddening.
Medical changes include more frequent development of melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer, development of innumerable keratoses of various sorts, and the tendency of sun-damaged skin to get more easily irritated and bruised.
The skin and the sunrays
Under the sun, our skin gets something we cannot see immediately. The sun emits energy over a broad spectrum of wavelengths. Basically, there’s the visible light we see, infrared radiation we feel, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation we can’t see or feel. Most skin cancer—and up to 90% of the visible signs of aging—are caused by two types of UV rays:
UVB rays: These “burning” rays are responsible for your tan, but also your sunburn and cancer risk. Despite weather conditions, up to 80% of the rays are able to penetrate through and leave you potentially exposed.
UVB radiation penetrates the epidermal – outer – layer of the skin. It damages DNA in this layer and causes other changes in skin cells. This may result in early signs of photoaging, and over time precancerous cells and skin cancers may develop.
UVA rays: Sometimes known as the “aging” rays, these are less likely to cause sunburns than UVB rays but are by no means any less dangerous. In fact, they penetrate the skin more deeply and prolonged exposure can lead to signs of photoaging such as wrinkles and sunspots.
UVA radiation, while also damaging the epidermis, penetrates to the level of the dermis. UVA not only harms epidermal cells; it also damages collagen and elastin, which make up the structure of the dermis and keep skin resilient. Blood vessels can also be harmed.
How you can protect your skin
It’s obvious the sun damages your skin more than any other factor. So there is one natural conclusion from this research: don’t spend too much time in the sun if you don’t want to age the appearance of your skin. While that may or may not be realistic, you can spend less time in the sun.
And protect yourself when you are in the sun – especially since the UV radiation that reaches us only seems to be increasing, and the nutrients we get in food that help protect us from UV exposure keep decreasing.
Apply sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every day (using only products which protect against UVA as well) to areas that are exposed to the sun: the face, neck, chest, hands, arms, legs, etc.
For starters, look for sun protection products that are labeled “broad spectrum”, as these help to ensure that you’ll be protected from both UVA and UVB rays. It’s also important to wear a broad spectrum SPF 15 or higher, keeping in mind that SPF 50+ doesn’t necessarily mean more protection.
Are you planning to go swimming or anticipate working up a sweat? Be sure to use a water-resistant sunscreen, but know that no sunscreen is truly waterproof. Sunscreens labeled “water resistant” are required to state how long it remains effective—typically 40-80 minutes, but check the label—but make it a point to reapply at least every two hours.
You can also use anti-aging supplements that provide certain antioxidants from foods and plants that, research shows, help promote your defenses against the effects of sun exposure. Even small changes in your habits over time can have a beneficial effect.