How Sunlight and Pollution Cause Skin to Age (And What You Can Do About It)
The skin is the body's largest organ. It is your first line of defense against bacteria, pollutants, viruses, and irritants that can make you sick or cause significant damage. As you age, areas of your skin can wrinkle, become thinner and more fragile. Elements like sun exposure, blue light, and environmental pollution can make your skin more vulnerable and the signs of aging more pronounced – especially in exposed areas. But take heart. There are things you can do to protect your skin and slow the signs of aging.1-3
The Amazing Skin You're In
Although you might not think about it, the skin is remarkable. It provides a range of vital functions, including protecting your body from the environment and containing nerve receptors so you can feel pain, touch, and pressure. It helps control your body temperature and balances fluids in your system.4
Skin has three layers:4
- Epidermis – the outermost part of the skin. It contains proteins, skin cells, and melanin. Melanin gives skin its pigment. The main protein in the epidermis is keratin, which helps your skin protect itself.
- Dermis – the middle layer of the skin. It contains oil glands, lymph vessels, nerve cells, blood vessels, and more skin cells. This layer provides nutrients to the epidermis.
- Subcutaneous layer – the layer under the dermis. It contains sweat glands, fat, more blood vessels, and some hair follicles.
All three layers contain connective tissue made of fibers that help it stay strong and flexible. Collagen is a protein that supports the skin's structure and makes the epidermis durable. Elastin is a protein that helps the skin spring back into place when it's stretched, keeping it elastic.4,5
Aging: The Effects of UV Light on Skin
How your skin ages is determined by several factors, including genetics, lifestyle choices like smoking, nutrition, and the environment. But the biggest contributor to aging skin is the sun.4
Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can damage skin cells. The more UV radiation you’re exposed to, the more damage is done. This often leads to premature aging of the skin, called photoaging.6,7
The signs of photoaging depend on how light or dark your skin is and how easily it burns.6
- Light skin that never tans and always burns: Dark spots (hyperpigmentation), wrinkles, and rough, scaly patches of skin (actinic keratosis).
- Skin that tans gradually or easily and burns minimally: Deep wrinkles, leathery appearance, hyperpigmentation, and increased skin thickness.
- Dark skin that tans easily and rarely or never burns: Deep folds on the sides of the mouth (nasolabial folds or smile lines), mottled pigmentation, and patches of uneven skin color (dyschromia).
Sun exposure also increases the risk of skin cancer. Skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer. UV damage to skin cells can change the way the cells grow and divide, which sometimes causes these cells to become cancerous. Although melanoma accounts for only one percent of skin cancers, it causes a large proportion of skin cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 106,000 new cases of melanoma cancers will be diagnosed in 2021.8
How to Reduce the Sun's Impact on Your Skin
- Limit your time in the sun. Avoid being in the sun during its peak from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Take extra care during the spring and summer months when UV radiation is the strongest.3,9
- Know your surroundings. UV rays bounce off surfaces like snow, water, sand, and pavement –increasing your exposure. UV radiation is also stronger at higher altitudes and closer to the equator.7
- Wear sunscreen daily. Make it a daily routine to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher to unprotected skin – even during the winter and on cloudy days. UV rays pass through clouds, so UV exposure occurs all year long. Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outside and reapply it every two hours after sweating or swimming.6,9 All skin tones need SPF protection because all skin colors can be damaged by the sun and get cancer from UV light.4,7,8
- Wear protective clothing. Wear a wide-brimmed hat that protects your face, ears, and neck. Long sleeves, pants, and dark, tightly woven fabrics help block UV rays. Select clothing specifically designed to help block sunlight and wear sunglasses that block UV light.9
Aging: The Effects of Blue Light on Skin
Just like UV radiation, blue light can damage skin cells and contribute to photoaging. Electronic devices emit predominately blue light. Every time you scroll on your phone, use your computer, or watch television, you are exposing your skin to blue light. This repeated exposure adds up over time.10
Standard chemical sunscreens will not protect skin from blue light. Look for a product that specifically addresses blue light protection. These are sunscreens that provide a physical barrier and likely contain a blend of iron oxides, which have been shown to effectively protect skin from blue light.10 Other sunscreens that provide physical barriers might contain zinc oxide or titanium oxide.
Treat Existing Sun Damage with Vitamin A
Certain types of vitamin A applied topically can address mild-to-moderate sun damage. Look for skin-care products that contain retinoids or retinols to help decrease fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. Retinoids are stronger than retinols and often require a prescription, but they typically produce results sooner.
Both retinoids and retinols can cause irritation, including red, flaky skin when you first start using them. Start by using retinoid or retinol a few times weekly until you gradually build up tolerance.6,11,12
Aging: The Effects of Pollution on Skin
Pollutants in the air contribute to how skin ages. Small particles of soot and traffic pollution (particulate matter) and gaseous compounds like nitrous oxide float in the air and can cause hyperpigmentation of the skin.13
Air pollution also happens indoors. Chemicals like cigarette smoke and heating or cooking with unclean fuel are associated with wrinkling of the skin on the face and the backs of hands. Skin exposed to cigarette smoke can also sag and have a leathery texture.13
Just like UV exposure, skin damaged by environmental pollution has an increased risk of developing skin cancer.10
How to Protect Your Skin from Pollution
Some antioxidants may help protect your skin and reduce damage from environmental pollution.14 If you want to apply substances above and beyond normal sunscreen or moisturizing creams, then consider the following.
- Vitamin C: Exposure from both UV radiation and air pollution diminishes the level of vitamin C in your skin. Using a topical product that contains at least 15-percent L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can help fade hyperpigmentation spots, boost collagen, and protect skin from additional damage.13,15
- Vitamin E: Sunlight and air pollution deplete vitamin E in the skin. Look for skin-care products that contain 2-5 percent α-tocopherol (vitamin E) to reduce wrinkles and help protect your skin from future pollution damage.13,15
- Ferulic acid: Skin-care products that contain ferulic acid in addition to vitamins C and E stabilize the formula and make it more effective at reducing the signs of aging and protecting against future damage.13,15
Protect Yourself by Protecting Your Skin's Barrier
Taking good care of your skin means taking good care of its natural barrier: the epidermis. Although there are several approaches, it's important to keep your skin moisturized and the natural fat barrier (lipid barrier) intact.
Moisturizers add and/or help the epidermis retain water, which is key for hydrated skin. Look for moisturizers with a type of lipid called ceramides to replenish your skin's lipid barrier.
Petroleum jelly acts as a barrier ointment to lock in moisture and prevent skin from chafing and chapping. This is helpful when skin is already irritated or inflamed, or when you want to protect your skin against cold and windy weather.16-18
Although nothing will stop the skin's natural aging process, protecting your skin from the elements, maintaining its barrier, and eating well will help delay the signs of aging and leave you with healthy skin.
Related information and products from Thorne
Ceramides can be taken orally in formulas that support skin hydration.*
Support your skin health from the inside out.*
- What is skin cancer? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/what-is-skin-cancer.htm. [Accessed May 31, 2021]
- Krutmann J, Bouloc A, Sore G, et al. The skin aging exposome. J Dermatol Sci 2017;85(3):152-161.
- Skin care and aging. National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/skin-care-and-aging. [Accessed May 31, 2021]
- Aging changes in the skin. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/004014.htm. [Accessed May 31, 2021]
- Layers of the skin. National Cancer Institute. https://training.seer.cancer.gov/melanoma/anatomy/layers.html. [Accessed May 31, 2021]
- Chien A, Kang S. Photoaging. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. [Accessed May 31, 2021]
- What is UV radiation? American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/radiation-exposure/uv-radiation.html. [Accessed May 31, 2021]
- Key statistics for melanoma skin cancer. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/about/key-statistics.html. [Accessed May 31, 2021]
- Sunlight. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/sunlight. [Accessed May 31, 2021]
- Bernstein E, Sarkas H, Boland P. Iron oxides in novel skin care formulations attenuate blue light for enhanced protection against skin damage. J Cosmet Dermatol 2021 Feb;20(2):532-537.
- Pazirandeh S, Burns D. Overview of vitamin A. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. [Accessed May 31, 2021]
- Hubbard B, Unger J, Rohrich R. Reversal of skin aging with topical retinoids. Plast Reconstr Surg 2014;133(4):481e-490e.
- Burke K. Mechanisms of aging and development – A new understanding of environmental damage to the skin and prevention with topical antioxidants. Mech Ageing Dev 2018;172:123-130.
- Antioxidants: In depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants-in-depth. [Accessed May 31, 2021]
- Burke K. Photodamage of the skin: protection and reversal with topical antioxidants. J Cosmet Dermatol 2004;3(3):149-155.
- Madison K. Barrier function of the skin: "la raison d'être" of the epidermis. J Invest Dermatol 2003;121(2):231-241.
- Eleven ways to reduce premature aging. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/skin-care-secrets/anti-aging/reduce-premature-aging-skin. [Accessed June 10, 2021]
- Eberting C, Coman G, Blickenstaff N. Repairing a compromised skin barrier in dermatitis: Leveraging the skin’s ability to heal itself. J Allergy Ther 2014;5(5).