Sun protection: the best tool against skin ageing (Part 1)

Posted by Natasha Dauncey on

Protecting your skin from UV exposure is one of the most effective ways of preventing damage to your skin. If you currently spend your hard earned cash on skincare products for “anti-ageing”, sunscreen is without doubt the best anti-ageing product available and without it there seems little point in using other anti-ageing products.

There is a much better level of awareness of the dangers of harmful UVB rays, responsible for “lobster red” sunburnt skin (a common occurrence in the UK when the sun makes its rare appearance here!) as well as different forms of skin cancer, and this has resulted in more emphasis on the need for a high level SPF in sunscreens. This was one of the reasons I hadn’t thought about using a dedicated sunscreen daily up until a few months ago (of course I’ve always been very careful when it comes to prolonged sun exposure). As someone with darker skin who doesn’t burn, I’m fortunate that the melanin my skin produces affords me a higher natural protection from the sun than lighter skins. But while my darker skin is less prone to fine lines and wrinkles, it’s instead more prone to pigmentation as a result of UV exposure. I’ve become much more conscious about avoiding pigmentation since I recently introduced retinoids to my regular skincare routine. In fact, anyone using strong actives (retinoids, Vitamin C, acids) or having regular skincare regenerating treatments (microneedling, peels, laser etc) needs to be particularly diligent about sun protection in order to protect their newly exfoliated / treated skin.

Over recent years, there has been increased focus on the effects of the more pervasive UVA rays. These rays are present all year round, in all weather AND they also travel through glass and light clothing. I’m sure many of you have seen the photo of a lorry driver who had substantial signs of ageing on one side of his face (the side closest to the window of his lorry) due to daily UVA exposure over several years. Whilst aggressive UVB rays cause very visible damage to the skin in the form of sunburn, the damaging effects of UVA are more gradual and cumulative with regular exposure – there’s no alarm bell like the immediate sunburn you get from UVB. UVA rays penetrate the deeper layers of the skin, forming free radicals and degrading collagen and elastin – two essential components that are responsible for the strength, tone and volume of our skin. Damage of these elements results in photoageing, in the form of lines, wrinkles and sagging. It also causes persistent pigment darkening and is implicated (like UVB) in cancerous change.

It’s probably no surprise that there are geographical variations in the strength and distribution of UV rays and their impact on the skin is still being studied. We know that the sun “feels” stronger closer to the equator. What is also interesting though, is that there are higher levels of UVA towards the poles, which means that Western Europe for example receives highest UVA relative to UVB, whereas areas closer to the equator receive lower UVA than tropical / subtropical areas. So even in the UK, though we might not need the very high levels of UVB protection that equatorial regions need, we really need UVA protection every day.

Sunscreens each have varying levels of UVA and UVB protection – not all are created equal! Furthermore, SPF level is only part of the picture. SPF indicates the level of protection from burning as a result of UVB exposure. The higher the SPF, the greater proportion of UVB rays that are filtered out (SPF 30 filters out 97% and SPF50 filters out 98%). It makes sense that fairer skins that are prone to burning or have a history of skin cancer for example should opt for SPF50. At a minimum it’s considered good practise to use a minimum of SPF30, but common sense should really be used. If you’re indoors most of the day and outdoors for short bursts, you won’t need as much as someone who works outdoors so it will depend on how much sun exposure you’re likely to have on a given day. I use an SPF30 daily at the moment because it’s easier to not have to think about how much I’ll be outside and I'd prefer to just make it a habit.

SPF level doesn’t tell you about the level of UVA protection a sunscreen offered though. And this is where it can get a little confusing if you’re not sure what to look for. Whilst SPF is a globally recognised way of indicating UVB protection, UVA protection is measured and shown in different ways in different parts of the world. In the UK we use the 5 star rating system which is a very easy way of determining the level of UVA protection (calculated as a ratio of UVA to UVB protection). I would always opt for a minimum of 4 stars, ideally 5 stars along with a minimum of SPF30. Next time you’re looking at sunscreens in a shop, take a look at the brands – you may be surprised to see that some high SPFs have a lower UVA rating of 3 stars or less! You may also see a low SPF with a higher star rating – but this doesn’t mean you’re getting more UVA protection. In Europe, it’s common to see the UVA symbol with a circle around it which indicates that you’ll get at least a third of the SPF protection on the label. Asian sunscreens use the PA system: PA+ through to PA++++, which indicates a PPD of at least 16 (though the PA system isn't an accurate a measure of UVA compared to knowing the PPD or UVAPF). In the US, sunscreens labelled as “broad spectrum” will provide a level of protection from UVA and UVB, however unless the UVA level is specified, it is more difficult to be assured of the level of UVA protection.

SPF in moisturisers / make up

Whilst SPF is measured in the same way for moisturisers and make up, in reality it’s difficult to get the amount of stated SPF without having to use more than what you’d most likely use as a moisturiser or foundation / face base. The other main issue is that it’s unlikely that you’ll get the level of UVA protection you need from these products (some may not have any UVA protection at all!), which is why I don’t rely on them as my main source of UV protection. I also believe you’re unlikely to see any of the superior filters in these types of products.

Choosing the right type of filters in your sunscreen can have a significant impact on how you get on with it, particularly if you have sensitive skin. Stay tuned for the next post to learn more about your options with filters!

Click for: part 2, part 3, part 4

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