I’m never in the sun. Do I still need to wear sunscreen?

The_sun1_0.jpgAs daylight hours get shorter, outdoor activities are winding down and you spend less time in the sun.  You may work long hours indoors with hardly any time to step outside for a few minutes of sunshine.  So is wearing sunscreen necessary?  A recent study argues it might be … at least if you want to slow skin aging.

Seasonal Insights from Dr. Belinda Tan

Think about the last time you were out in the sun.  Was this an afternoon at the beach?  Playing an outdoor sport or hiking?  Working in your garden on a sunny day?  How about driving during the day?  Or sitting next to a window at work?  Unless you live in a cave or near the North Pole where there are only a few hours of daylight, you are probably getting hit with more ultraviolet (UV) radiation than you know.  UV radiation from the sun entering our atmosphere has two parts -- UVB and UVA.  UVB mainly leads to sunburns and common skin cancers (basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas).  UVA causes tanning as well as “photo-aging” in the form of brown spots called lentigos and wrinkles.  Glass windows do provide protection from UVB, but UVA passes right through windows.  In addition, even if you are in the shade on a sunny day, UV rays bounce off all light colored surfaces (for example, beach sand, concrete, water surfaces).  You may feel protected sitting in the shade or wearing a hat but these reflected beams of UV radiation are still hitting your exposed skin.  In addition, up to 40% of UV rays still reach you even on a cloudy day.

These under-appreciated sources of UV exposure may be one reason why daily use of sunscreen, regardless of how much time you spend in direct sunlight, can slow skin aging.  Australian researchers studied about 900 adults age 55 and younger to see if regular sunscreen use prevents skin aging.  Over a time span of 4.5 years, people who did not use sunscreen regularly showed obvious signs of skin aging.  The people who applied sunscreen daily showed practically no visible change.  Now add on 25 years of daily sun exposure and see the dramatic photo-aging seen on the left side of this truck driver’s face published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Photo-aging and skin cancers are the result of your lifetime UV exposure so the changes appear very gradually over many years.  This is why you begin to notice these problems in your thirties and later.  You can start slowing signs of photo-aging now.  Here are 3 simple tips for guaranteed youthful skin for many decades to come:

1. Protect cosmetically important areas of your skin.
Apply sunscreen daily to your face, neck, chest and hands.  Anytime you put on sunglasses while driving, consider also wearing a light scarf and driving gloves.

2. Use a sunscreen that does the job.
Select a sunscreen with titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide to ensure broad UVA and UVB protection.  Use a SPF30 or higher.  You’ve probably heard that any SPF above 30 provides no additional benefit.  Are you applying enough sunscreen, and reapplying every two hours?  Studies show that we apply less than half the amount needed to ensure adequate coverage and based on typical use, SPF70 or greater may be more appropriate. 
3. Don’t sun tan – instead, self-tan.
Trade in your sun tan and tanning bed for a self-tanning lotion or spray tan.   Bronzing powders also work well to create a healthy glow.

It may seem like a bit of extra effort today, but if you follow these simple steps, your friends will envy your youthful glow in decades to come.  Trust me.

Published on 11/01/2013 | Last updated on 10/18/2018