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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health


Skin and Sun—Not a good mix

Good skin care begins with sun safety. Whether it is something as simple as age spots or as serious as skin cancer, the simplest and cheapest way to keep your skin healthy is to limit your exposure to the sun. Yet, Americans spend billions of dollars each year on skin care products that promise to erase wrinkles, lighten age spots, and eliminate itching, flaking, or redness.

As you age, your skin changes. It becomes thinner and loses fat, making your skin look less smooth. When your skin looks less plump, your veins and bones become more noticeable. You sweat less, which causes your skin to be drier. Also, your skin can take longer to heal from bruises or cuts as you get older. With all of these age-related changes, sunlight is a major contributing factor. You can delay these changes by avoiding prolonged and regular exposure to the sun.

Although nothing can completely undo sun damage, the skin sometimes can repair itself. So, it's never too late to protect yourself from the harmful effects of the sun.

  • Stay out of the sun. Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. This is when the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays are strongest.
  • Use sunscreen. Sunscreens are rated according to a sun protection factor (SPF), which ranges from 2 to 30 or higher. A higher number means longer, stronger protection. Buy products with an SPF of 15 or higher. Also look for products with a label that says: broad spectrum (protects against both UVA and UVB rays) and water resistant (stays on longer, even if you get wet or sweat). Reapply the lotion as needed.
  • Wear protective clothing. A hat with a wide brim shades your neck, ears, eyes, and head. Look for sunglasses with a label saying the glasses block 99 to 100 percent of the sun's rays. Wear loose, lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and long pants or long skirts when in the sun.
  • Avoid artificial tanning. Don't use sunlamps, tanning beds, tanning pills, or tanning makeup. Tanning pills have a color additive that turns your skin orange after you take them. The FDA has not approved this for tanning the skin. Tanning make-up products will not protect your skin from the sun.
  • Check your skin often. Look for changes in the size, shape, color, or feel of birthmarks, moles, and spots. If you find any changes, see a doctor. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that older, fair-skinned people have a yearly skin check as part of a regular physical exam.
  • Dark skin needs protection, too. The incidence of skin cancer in African Americans and other dark-skinned people is much lower than in Caucasians due to the additional melanin, a pigment, in the skin. While this pigment offers some sun protection, dark brown or black skin is not a guarantee against skin cancer.

Fall 2008 Issue: Volume 3 Number 4 Page 25