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The truth about sun exposure and premature ageing

Dr Hamish Black
A middle-aged couple laugh as the man looks at his phone

Excessive exposure to the sun can lead to premature ageing

A middle-aged couple laugh as the man looks at his phone

For many of us, ageing and wrinkles are major concerns when it comes to our skin – both now and in the future. While there’s not much we can do about time ticking by (sorry!), there are steps we can take to help minimise wrinkles, lines and the appearance of ageing skin.

“UV and infrared light from the sun do damage to the skin by changing the genetic make-up of cells and causing the release of harmful enzymes within and also under the skin. Combined with other risk factors such as smoking, stress and pollution, this further damages the skin,” says Dr Hamish Black, nib group medical advisor.

"The best thing to do to minimise the risk of sun damage is to follow the SunSmart mantra - slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, slide on sunglasses and seek the shade."

Learn more about your risk of skin cancer using nib’s skin assessment.

Sun damage and ageing

While lowering the risk of skin cancer is undoubtedly one of the most important reasons to protect yourself from the sun, steering clear of those ultraviolet (UV) rays also plays a key role in preventing premature ageing (i.e. wrinkles and fine lines). In fact, sun exposure is the most common cause of fine lines and wrinkles – not to mention skin damage such as pigmentation irregularity, broken capillaries, red blotches and brown spots, which all contribute to skin looking older.

This premature ageing of the skin is known as photoageing.

What is photoageing?

Photoageing refers to the ageing effects of the skin caused by the sun across the course of your life. Unlike tanning and sunburn, which show the immediate effects of the sun’s radiation, photoageing is a longer-term effect of the sun’s harmful rays on the skin – which, by the way, is the body’s largest vital organ.

Exposure to UV radiation is responsible for a huge 90% of visible changes to the skin. But because this process (also known as photodamage, sun damage or solar damage) happens in the deepest layers of the skin, it can take years before this cellular damage becomes visible on the skin’s surface.

A mum puts sunscreen on her young daughter's nose as they stand on the beach, laughing

How the sun damages the layers of the skin

Photoageing starts when the sun’s UV rays stimulate the formation of free radicals within the skin. (Free radicals are unstable molecules that cause damage to DNA and other cells.) These free radicals damage the skin’s elastin fibres, contributing to wrinkles, broken capillaries, uneven skin texture, brown spots and – much more seriously – skin cancer.

Wrinkles and sun exposure

While everyone is at risk of the effects of photoageing caused by sun exposure, there are some groups who are even more susceptible.

People with lighter skin have less natural protection against the sun’s damaging effects and tend to develop more wrinkles than those with dark skin. Fair-skinned people are also more susceptible to skin cancer, and while darker skin can also be damaged by the sun’s UV rays (and develop skin cancer), it is more likely dark patches of melasma will form.

Find out your skin cancer risk using the nib skin self-assessment.

What happens when you tan?

Have you ever heard the saying ‘There’s no such thing as a safe tan’? Well, it’s true – tanning is a sign that your skin has been damaged by UV radiation, and any amount of exposure to the sun’s UV radiation will contribute to sun damage and ageing.

The damage caused by tanning will eventually cause the skin to wrinkle and sag due to lost elasticity. Skin may also turn a yellowish colour, and brown patches can appear. Not to mention the fact you’ll have a greater risk of developing potentially life-threatening skin cancer.

UV recommendations and prevention

There are many simple steps we can take to prevent sun damage and ageing caused by UV rays, and slow down the photoageing process:

  • Wearing protective clothing that creates a barrier between your skin and the sun’s rays

  • Avoiding the sun when UV levels are three or higher (download the SunSmart app to check)

  • Using a broad-spectrum (meaning it guards against both UVA and UVB rays), water-resistant, SPF30+ sunscreen on the parts of skin that can’t be protected by clothing

"When it comes to using sunscreen for exposed areas, this should always be SPF30 or more, waterproof and be an adequate amount - you need more than you think! This is especially important on days of high UV – or UV that is greater than 3," Hamish says.

It’s important to note, too, that the heat of the day has nothing to do with the strength of the UV radiation – making it important to take these protective measures every day, whether the sun is shining or not. Yes, that means you may need sunscreen in winter!

Just as you wouldn’t neglect the body’s other vital organs, like your heart or lungs, don’t be complacent about the health of your skin. Take the nib skin self-assessment to better understand your risk and get familiar with your skin by doing regular self-checks so you can stay safe and healthy for years to come.

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Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.