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Year-round sunscreen use significantly slows aging of skin

Teresa Tanoos's picture
New report finds year-round sunscreen use significantly slows aging of skin

Protecting your skin from sunburn isn’t the only reason to slather on sunscreen. New research shows using sunscreen regularly also slows the aging of your skin, significantly so.

Damaging ultraviolet rays that cause wrinkles and other signs of aging are a threat whenever you spend time outdoors in the sun, whether you’re just going for a walk, running errands, or spending time at the pool. Unless you want to stay indoors all the time, covering up and using sunscreen is your best bet for protecting your skin from the sun.

But do sunscreens really protect your skin from aging? In some of the strongest evidence to date, researchers in sunny Australia launched a study that found they really do.

For the study, participants in sunny Australia had casts made of the top of their hands to measure fine lines and wrinkles from sun damage.

As a result, the researchers found that it’s not too late to start using sunscreen, even if you're already middle-aged and never used it before. You just need to use it near daily – and not just at the beach or pool.

The study involved 900 participants under the age of 55 who were randomly assigned to either: 1) use sunscreen daily; or 2) use it only when they deemed it necessary.

Researchers found that using sunscreen daily was difficult, as many participants admitted to not always using it as often as they were supposed to. However, those participants who used sunscreen regularly had younger-looking hands 4½ years later. They also has 24 percent less skin aging than those who didn’t use sunscreen regularly.

The researchers concluded that regular sunscreen use retards skin aging in healthy, middle-aged men and women. The study was published June 4, 2013 in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine.

"These are meaningful cosmetic benefits," said lead researcher Dr. Adele Green of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. More importantly, she added, less sun-caused aging decreases the risk of skin cancer in the long term.

Yet, despite doctor’s warnings to use sunscreen year-round to protect against skin cancer, a recent report found that too few people follow that advice. Surprisingly, 25% of those who have had skin cancer do not use sunscreen when going outside for more than an hour, according to a study by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

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Read more: 1 in 4 skin cancer survivors still tans without sunscreen

Skin experts hope the new study draws attention to the issue.

"Regular use of sunscreen had an unquestionable protective effect," said Dr. Richard Glogau, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Glogau, who has long studied sun's skin effects, says the consumer message is clear: "They can get a two-for-one with sunscreen. They can do something that will keep them healthier and also keep them better-looking."

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration rules for U.S. sunscreens are taking effect, ensuring that sunscreens labeled "broad-spectrum" protect against both the ultraviolet-B rays, which cause sunburn, as well as those deeper-penetrating ultraviolet-A rays, which are linked to premature wrinkles and skin cancers.

Sunburns have been long been tied to a higher risk for melanoma, which is the deadliest skin cancer. However, overall UV exposure also contributes to melanoma, as well as more curable skin cancers that can still be disfiguring if not detected early.

In Australia, where the study was conducted, has one of the world's highest rates of skin cancer. The study was part of a larger study started in the 1990s that tracked participants for a decade before confirming that regular sunscreen use did, in fact, lowered the participant’s cancer risk.

Nevertheless, sunscreens are not always successful at blocking the sun’s harmful rays. Therefore, dermatologists recommend limiting exposure to the sun during the peak UV hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. – wearing a hat, sunglasses and other protective clothing also helps.

The good news is that sunscreens have come a long way. As Glogau noted, today's sunscreens are superior to those used two decades ago when the study started; thus, those who regularly use sunscreen now might see more benefit.

"I'm fond of telling people that if they start using sunscreen on a regular basis and don't do anything else, over a period of time they'll see an improvement in the appearance of their skin," Glogau said. "It's never too late."

SOURCE: Maria Celia B. Hughes, Gail M. Williams, Peter Baker, Adèle C. Green; “Sunscreen and Prevention of Skin Aging, a Randomized Trial”. Annals of Internal Medicine. June 4, 2013; 158(11):781-790.