As we age, our skin’s ability to protect itself from the sun’s harmful rays declines. The natural aging process inhibits the growth of fat cells underneath the top layer of the skin, resulting in thinner, more sensitive skin. Add a lifetime of sun exposure to the equation, which slows the production of collagen and elastin (the skin’s support system), and the skin is even less capable of protecting itself from UVA and UVB rays.
What's more, hormonal shifts in the body don’t do our largest organ any favors either. Decreasing levels of estrogen may affect the skin’s ability to retain moisture, leading to dry skin that’s more susceptible to burning.
“Natural SPF tends to decline with the aging process as skin becomes thinner and the lipid barrier is impaired,” said dermatologist Dr. Jeannette Graf. “Menopause is a time when skin becomes even thinner and drier so it may cause a faster decline in the skin’s ability to protect itself.”
But it seems that women who are in or nearing menopause aren't the only ones who need to slather on the sunscreen: Children under six months old are more photosensitive due to melanin, the skin’s natural SPF, not yet reaching full development. A study published in Journal Watch Dermatology found that 29 percent to 83 percent of children experience sunburn each summer, making them more susceptible to skin conditions, such as skin cancer, later in life.
No matter what age you are, maximizing protection from sun exposure is the best way to prevent sunburn, premature wrinkling, sagging and sunspots.
For many people, simply hiding from the sun is easier than going through the rigmarole of applying and reapplying sunscreen, but consider this: Peeking out from underneath a wide-brimmed hat (even if you’ve parked yourself under an umbrella) only provides 20 percent protection from the sun. Add long sleeves, and you’ve only upped SPF by 5 or 9 (dark colors have a higher SPF), said Graf. Despite these efforts, 80 percent of UV rays are actually reflected off the ground, which means you’re still getting a hefty dose of sunshine from the bottom-up.
So at the end of the day, unless you want to sequester yourself indoors for the summer, you’re going to need to invest in some sunscreen and do your due diligence once you get to the beach or pool.
Apply a broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunblock with an SPF of 30 or higher 30 minutes before sun exposure, which is about how long it takes for the skin to absorb sunscreen (unless you are using zinc or titanium dioxide sunscreen, which is effective immediately).
Keep that tube, spray or bottle handy when you get to the beach or pool so you can reapply every one to two hours, even if you haven’t gone in the water. If you really want to go the extra mile, invest in specialty clothing that offers an SPF of 50.
When you’re not on the beach or near the pool, you can also boost your skin’s natural sun protection from the inside out, according to a study from the Universities of New Castle and Manchester. Consuming foods rich in the antioxidant lycopene may help prevent the skin from burning.
In the study, cooked tomatoes, such as those found in tomato paste, offered the highest amount of the antioxidant. But if you don’t want to add a spoonful of tomato paste to your diet, try consuming other foods rich in lycopene, such as watermelon or pink grapefruit, suggested Graf.
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