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Protect Your Skin: How Sun Exposure Causes Premature Aging

Introduction: 

While a moderate amount of sunlight is essential for our overall health (think vitamin D), prolonged and unprotected exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation has been shown to accelerate the aging process, leading to premature aging of the skin. This phenomenon, often referred to as "photoaging," is a primary concern for those individuals seeking to maintain a youthful, radiant complexion. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the science behind how sun exposure causes premature aging, while exploring practical strategies on how to protect your skin from its harmful effects.

UV of a woman's skin

Understanding Premature Aging Skin [1]

If you’re wondering what causes premature aging, also known as "extrinsic aging," i.e., the accelerated deterioration of the skin's appearance and function, it’s caused by skin’s exposure to various external (extrinsic) factors which primarily include UV radiation from the sun and free radical-generating particulate matter found in air pollution. This extrinsic aging process is distinct from intrinsic aging which is caused by the natural and unfortunately inevitable human aging process which depends on an individual’s genetics, and of course, the passage of time.

Premature age is physically characterized by several telltale signs which include:

  1. Fine lines and wrinkles: UV radiation causes collagen and elastin, the structural proteins responsible for maintaining skin's firmness and elasticity, to break down (deteriorate) which in turn leads to the formation of fine lines and wrinkles.
  2. Age spots (sunspots): Excessive sun exposure can also cause the overproduction of melanin (pigment producing substance in the skin) which leads to the appearance of age spots/sunspots, especially on those areas most frequently exposed to the sun such as the face, hands, and arms.
  3. Dryness and roughness: UV radiation can also damage the skin's outer layer, i.e., the skin barrier, causing it to become dehydrated and develop a rough, leathery texture.
  4. Uneven skin tone and discoloration: Excessive sun exposure can also result in an uneven distribution of melanin causing one’s skin to appear blotchy and discolored.

The Mechanics of UV Radiation in Premature Aging [2]

UV radiation, a potent form of electromagnetic radiation emitted by the sun, plays a major role when it comes to the premature aging process. There are two main types of UV radiation that affect the skin:

  1. UVA (Ultraviolet A): UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin's dermis, damaging collagen and elastin fibers, and contributing to the formation of wrinkles and age spots.
  2. UVB (Ultraviolet B): UVB rays primarily affect the skin's outer layer, the epidermis, causing sunburns and increasing the risk of skin cancer.

While both UVA and UVB radiation contribute to premature aging, UVA rays are considered the primary culprit due to their ability to penetrate deeper into the skin and cause long-term damage.

The Science Behind Sun-Induced Aging 

The effects of sun exposure to skin, i.e., the process of premature aging due to sun exposure, involves a complex interplay of various cellular and molecular mechanisms. The following are some of the key factors:

  1. Oxidative stress: UV radiation generates free radicals, i.e., unstable molecules that damage DNA, proteins, and lipids in skin cells which lead to oxidative stress and, unfortunately, accelerated aging.
  2. Inflammation: Exposure to UV radiation also triggers an inflammatory response in the skin which can lead to the breakdown of collagen and elastin resulting in the formation of fine lines, wrinkles and the sagging of skin.
  3. Collagen and elastin degradation: UV radiation activates specific enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) which break down collagen and elastin, i.e., the structural proteins responsible for maintaining skin's firmness and elasticity.
  4. DNA damage: UV radiation can also cause direct damage to the DNA of skin cells, leading to mutations and the potential development of skin cancer.

Exposure to UV radiation does not result in sudden rapid aging of skin. Rather, the effects are cumulative over time, sneaking up on a person when they one day realize after looking in the mirror that there skin is less youthful looking and feeling than before.

Protecting Your Skin from Sun Damage [3]

While the effects of premature aging may seem daunting, there are various effective strategies that can be practiced in order to protect your skin from the harmful effects of sun exposure. These include:

  1. Sunscreen: Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen having an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of at least 30 is critically important for blocking both UVA (wrinkle-causing) and UVB (sunburn-causing) rays. It’s equally as important to reapply sunscreen every two hours and, if swimming or sweating, even more often.
  2. Protective clothing: Wearing protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, and wide-brimmed hats, can provide an additional layer of protection from sun exposure.
  3. Seeking shade: Seek shade whenever possible, especially during the peak hours of sun intensity (typically between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.).
  4. Antioxidant-rich skincare: Consistently use antioxidant-rich skincare products like those containing polyphenols or vitamins C and E to help neutralize oxidative stress-causing free radicals.
  5. Regular skin checkups: Be proactive and schedule regular skin checkups with a dermatologist to identify and address any potential signs of sun damage or skin cancer early on.

Reversing and Minimizing the Effects of Sun Damage 

While preventing sun damage is always the preferred approach, there are products and procedures that can be used to help reverse and minimize the effects of premature aging caused by sun exposure. These include the following:

  1. Retinoids: The use of topical retinoids derived from vitamin A can help stimulate collagen production, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and improve skin texture and tone.  However, it should be noted that retinoids (retinol or retinoic acid) also cause dryness and irritation.  Overuse of retinol can cause “retinol burn” (irritant contact dermatitis), while long-term use may leave skin even more vulnerable to photodamage!
    1. Natural Alternatives for sensitive skin types: Bidens pilosa (aka Black Jack) is gentler on mature skin and has no  scientifically-identified side effects associated with its daily use.  It supports collagen and elastin production at about 1/3 the rate of retinol, but without irritation and photosensitivity.  Surprising, it even increases cellular turnover faster than conventional retinol!  
  2. Chemical peels: Professional chemical peels can help remove the outer layer of damaged skin cells to reveal a fresher, more youthful complexion.
  3. Laser treatments: Laser resurfacing treatments, such as fractional CO2 lasers, can stimulate collagen production and improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots.
  4. Antioxidant supplements: Antioxidant-containing dietary supplements such as those with polyphenols, flavonoids, or vitamins C and E, can help neutralize oxidative stress-causing free radicals while supporting the skin barriers natural repair mechanisms.

It's important to note that while these products and treatments can help improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin, prevention through diligent sun protection and avoidance of over exposure to the sun remain the most effective approaches to maintaining a youthful, radiant complexion.

The Impact of Sun Exposure on the Skin Barrier [4]

The skin's outermost layer, the stratum corneum, acts as a protective barrier against environmental aggressors, including UV radiation, pollution, and allergens. This barrier is crucial for maintaining skin hydration, preventing trans epidermal water loss (TEWL), and protecting the deeper layers of the skin from potential damage.

Unfortunately, excessive sun exposure can disrupt the skin's barrier function in several ways such as:

  1. Lipid degradation: UV radiation breaks down the lipids (ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids) that form the mortar between the skin cells, weakening the barrier and leading to increased water loss/skin dehydration.
  2. pH imbalance: Prolonged sun exposure can also alter the skin's natural acidic pH, which is essential for maintaining a healthy barrier. Inappropriate skin pH levels can impair the activity of certain enzymes responsible for maintaining the skin barrier's integrity.
  3. Inflammation: As was mentioned earlier, UV radiation triggers an inflammatory response in the skin which leads to the release of enzymes that can degrade the structural proteins and lipids that make up the skin barrier.
  4. Oxidative stress: Lastly, the free radicals generated by UV exposure can oxidize and damage the lipids and proteins that comprise the skin barrier, compromising its function.

When the skin barrier becomes compromised, it can lead to various problematic issues, such as:

  • Dryness and flakiness: A weakened barrier leads to increased trans epidermal water loss, causing the skin to become dehydrated and flaky.
  • Sensitivity and irritation: A compromised barrier allows for easier penetration of irritants, allergens, and environmental pollutants, leading to skin sensitivity and inflammation.
  • Infection risk: A compromised barrier makes the skin more susceptible to microbial invasion, increasing the risk of skin infections.

Sun Exposure and Hyperpigmentation

The color of our skin, hair and eyes comes from melanin (skin pigment) which the body naturally produces to protects us from UV rays.   There are two kinds of melanin:

  • Eumelanin - greater UV protection, darker coloring, and leads to tanning 
  • Pheomelanin - less UV protective, reddish and yellowish skin hues

UV (ultraviolet) rays from the sun can lead to sunburns, dark spots, uneven skin tones, and skin cancers, so protecting our skin from the sun is critically important.  

Hyperpigmentation occurs when melanin is overproduced, resulting in localized skin discoloration or darkening. These patches (age spots, sunspots, liver spots, or melasma) may appear brown, black, gray, red or pink in color; they can occur in just one area, or all over the body; and they are neither painful nor itchy. 

Hyperpigmentation can be triggered or exacerbated by sun exposure (sunspots, freckles or melasma), hormonal changes (melasma or pregnancy mask), skin inflammation (acne, eczema, psoriasis), and mechanical/frictional damage (chronic picking or scratching).

Without a VERY strict sun protection routine, hyperpigmentation is unlikely to improve and is VERY likely to return after a successful treatment!

While you can treat or at least improve hyperpigmentation in many cases, it is not always possible. Pigmentation is hard to treat because melanin is found deep within the skin. Treatment depends on skin type, tolerance to laser treatments (FRAXEL or IPL) and dedication to sun exposure protection.

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation involves the formation dark spot that are only a few shades darker than one’s original skin color.  These spots will typically fade in 6-12 months.  Deeper colored spots (blue, gray, or brown) can take years to fade. 

Ingredients that have been shown to lighten dark spots work by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in the production of melanin.  Most of these active ingredients are regulated such as:

  • Hydroquinone: banned in Europe (potential organ-system toxicity)
  • Alpha-Arbutin: 2% SCCS limit (converts to hydroquinone) 
  • Azelaic Acid: >15% prescription only (skin irritation potential)
  • Kojic Acid: 1% SCCS limit (may be endocrine disrupting)
  • Licorice (glabridin): still being studied (not enough data)

A dermatologist can recommend a prescription level topical and/or decide to employ  a phototherapeutic laser to help lessen the appearance of dark spots.

Natural Alternative for sensitive skin types: Daisy (Bellis perennis) flower extract contains polyphenols which inhibit tyrosinase to suppress melanin production, as well as high concentrations of malic and tartaric acids (alpha-hydroxy acids) that help to gently exfoliate hyperpigmented skin. 

Sun Exposure and the Skin Microbiome [5]

The skin is home to a diverse ecosystem of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses, collectively known as the skin microbiome. This intricate community of microbes helps protect the skin from pathogens, regulates inflammation, and contributes to the overall health and proper functioning of the skin.

However, excessive sun exposure can have a detrimental impact on the delicate balance of the skin microbiome which can lead to various skin issues that can accelerate the aging process such as:

  • Increased inflammation: An imbalance in the skin microbiome can contribute to chronic inflammation which is a key driver of premature aging.
  • Impaired wound healing: Beneficial microbes play a crucial role in wound healing, and their depletion can lead to slower healing and increased scarring.
  • Skin sensitivity and allergies: An imbalanced skin microbiome can trigger an extreme immune response leading to skin sensitivity, allergies, and other inflammatory skin conditions.
  • Acne and other skin disorders: Certain pathogenic microbes, when over-represented, can contribute to the development of acne, eczema, and other types of skin disorders.

Conclusion

The importance of protecting your skin from the damaging effects of sun exposure cannot be overstated. Premature aging, caused by UV radiation, can severely impact the appearance and health of your skin, leading to fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, and an overall dull and uneven complexion. By incorporating effective sun protection strategies, such as using broad-spectrum sunscreen, seeking shade, and wearing protective clothing, you can significantly reduce the risk of premature aging and maintain a youthful, radiant complexion for years to come.

Remember, prevention is key, but it's never too late to start taking proactive measures to minimize and reverse the effects of sun damage. If you have concerns about premature aging or any other skin-related issues, I highly recommend consulting with a board-certified dermatologist for personalized advice and treatment options.

FAQ

  1. How does the sun cause premature aging? The sun's UV radiation, particularly UVA rays, penetrate deep into the skin's dermis, damaging collagen and elastin fibers, generating free radicals, and triggering an inflammatory response. This combination of processes leads to the formation of wrinkles, age spots, and other signs of premature aging.
  2. Can you reverse skin aging from sun? While the effects of sun damage are not entirely reversible, there are various treatments and skincare strategies that can help minimize and improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin, such as the use of retinoids, chemical peels, laser treatments, and antioxidant-containing dietary supplements.
  3. Is 90% of aging caused by the sun? This statement is a bit of an oversimplification. While sun exposure plays a significant role in premature aging, intrinsic aging (the natural aging process) also contributes to the visible signs of aging. Additionally, factors like genetics, lifestyle, and environmental exposures also play a role in the aging process.
  4. Does sunlight stimulate collagen? While moderate exposure to sunlight can provide some benefits, such as vitamin D synthesis, excessive sun exposure does not stimulate collagen production. In fact, UV radiation from the sun breaks down existing collagen and elastin fibers, leading to the formation of wrinkles and sagging skin.
  5. Does avoiding the sun slow aging? Yes, avoiding excessive sun exposure and practicing proper sun protection can significantly slow down the premature aging process caused by exposure to UV radiation. However, it's important to note that intrinsic aging will still occur, and other lifestyle factors, such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, and stress management, also play a role in maintaining a youthful appearance.

Call to Action

Embrace a proactive approach to skincare and protect your body’s largest and arguably most valuable asset – your skin. Do your skin a favor and check out Codex Labs’ collection of skincare and dietary supplement products to help reverse and mitigate “photoaging” damage caused by the sun. For example, our ANTU® COLLECTION of patented, scientifically developed skincare products help to repair and protect the skin barrier from the damaging effects of external aggressors (sun + air pollution) so as to avoid premature skin aging. 

Formulated with our proprietary blend of Mother Nature’s potent antioxidants from Patagonia (M3™), these products address oxidative stress, inflammation, and damage to the skin barrier caused by free radicals associated with skin’s exposure to UV radiation and air pollution. The award-winning, microbiome-friendly ANTU® SKIN BARRIER SERUM not only effectively neutralizes free radicals already present on/in the skin, but also forms a protective film that inhibits free radical-forming particulate matter present in air pollution from contacting the skin. 

You’ll also want to include ANTU® OVERNIGHT REPAIR CREAM containing nature’s retinol alternative Bidens Pilosa (aka, black-jack) together with dark spot-inhibiting daisy flower extract to gently, yet effectively, reverse the signs of photoaging while you sleep. And, to help protect your skin’s cellular DNA from continued UV damage while you’re awake, the ANTU® SKIN BARRIER MOISTURIZER with its patented oxidative stress-fighting AntuComplex® technology plus “entadine”, a bark/seed extract that inhibits sun-induced skin damage by boosting skin’s natural defenses and immunity, should also be added to your daily skincare routine to protect against premature photoaging. 

And because we at Codex Labs wholeheartedly believe in “holistically” caring for skin, don’t forget about our ANTU® SKIN BARRIER SUPPORT SUPPLEMENT, a dietary supplement specifically formulated to neutralize and manage free radicals from inside the body!

References:

  1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/23105-premature-aging
  2. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/anatomyvideos/000125.htm#:~:text=The%20sun's%20ultraviolet%20light%20can,elasticity%2C%20leading%20to%20premature%20aging.
  3. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/5240-sun-damage-protecting-yourself
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2968765/#:~:text=Previous%20studies%20have%20demonstrated%20that,causes%20erythema%2C%20sunburn%20and%20melanoma.
  5. https://www.news-medical.net/news/20230810/How-does-sun-exposure-affect-skin-microbiota-composition-and-diversity.aspx#:~:text=These%20microbial%20communities%20are%20subject,their%20phylogenetic%20and%20genotypic%20composition.
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