In 2015, the global anti-aging skincare market was estimated to be worth over 140 billion dollars and the market is forecasted to grow by 7.5% annually until 2021. It is easy to find a retailer, manufacturer, online beauty blog or housewife that is touting an over-the-counter anti-aging miracle cream. I’m asked on a daily basis, “What’s the best anti-aging cream?” My answer is, there is no “Fountain of Youth” in a bottle.
I tell my patients that the most effective anti-aging preventative is sunscreen. I also inform my patients that studies have recently shown that daily sunscreen application can actually reverse the signs of photo-aging. There is no double blind control study comparing the photo-aging preventive effects of any “anti-aging” ingredient marketed in over-the-counter (“OTC”) skincare products with that of sunscreen. It is highly likely that you don’t find one, because sunscreen is inexpensive and in nearly every neighborhood corner store.
What is SPF?
SPF, also known as Sun Protection Factor, is a relative measurement that indicates how much solar energy (ultraviolet radiation) is required to cause sunburn on an individual’s skin when using sunscreen compared to the amount of solar energy required to cause sunburn on unprotected skin (i.e. without wearing sunscreen). The higher the SPF, the more protection the product affords. SPF labeling on sunscreen bottles, however, only refers to the sunburn protection the product offers caused by ultraviolet B rays. It does not reflect protection by UVA rays, visible light or infrared wavelengths. Perhaps a better name for SPF would be Sunburn Protection Factor.
So is higher SPF really better?
A recent study concluded that SPF 100 was better at preventing sunburn than SPF 50. In addition, most sunscreens with high SPF are also labeled “broad spectrum” meaning that the sunscreen also protects against ultraviolet rays that fall well into the UVA range (the entire UVA spectrum is not protected and no sunscreen can protect against 100% of ultraviolet light.)
Yes, I believe a sunscreen with SPF 100 is preferable and better at protecting the skin from the sun’s damaging rays than a sunscreen with SPF 50. But if applying a sunscreen that is effective at preventing redness and sunburn results in a false sense of security for the user, allowing that individual to get more direct sun exposure to the non-burning, yet still very damaging and possibly skin cancer-causing UVA rays, more harm than good results.
Sunscreen is paramount, but it is not enough
The sun is a nuclear fireball that gives off energy in many forms, each form being defined by the wavelengths of energy emitted. The predominance of high-energy, short wavelength solar radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere and doesn’t reach the Earth’s surface.
Read this related story as well: Your Sunscreen Isn’t Enough to Prevent Skin Cancer
The part of the ultraviolet light spectrum that does reach the earth’s surface is divided into two regions, ultraviolet A (UVA) 315-400nm and shorter wavelength ultraviolet B (UVB) 280 – 315 nm. Energy wavelengths longer than UVA rays fall into the visible light spectrum or the colors detected by our eyes, followed by infrared wavelengths, which we perceive as heat. There is some evidence that visible light may have damaging effects on the skin, meaning sitting indoors can be having an effect on your skin. UVA rays are the primary cause of the signs of premature aging of skin including fine wrinkling and pigmented age spots. UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn.
Overexposure to both UVA and UVB can cause skin cancer.
So what’s the complete answer to sunscreen use? Wear it. Wear it daily. Apply it liberally, Reapply it often. Wear protective clothing including long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats. And most importantly, avoid direct midday sun when possible.