Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Rithi Choudhary (Journalist) on 09th Mar 2021

Can Sunscreen Prevent Tanning and Premature Skin Aging? Know How Sunscreen Works

Can Sunscreen Prevent Tanning & Skin Aging?

Hopefully, by now, you have heard or known about how important sunscreen is for your skin's overall health and appearance. You are continually exposing the sensitive skin on your face, which is one of the most vital organs and by far indicates the overall health of a person. Skin is exposed to unnecessary damage from sun exposure almost every day, which is why your skin should be taken care of from a young age.

Now the question arises, does sunscreen prevent tanning and premature aging, or is it a fad?

Sunscreen 101 

Sunscreen can be classified into two types in terms of their functions. One is chemical-based sunscreen, and the other is physical-based sunscreen. The former works by absorbing UV rays from the sun and altering them before they can cause any harm to the skin. Chemical sunscreen ingredients include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate.

Physical-based sunscreens deflect UV rays away from the skin. These sunscreens consist of fine minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

There is a false conception that sunscreen and other similar cosmetics with SPF cause more skin harm than benefit. But there is a sharp paradigm shift after several studies have proven otherwise. Juxtaposing the results of sunscreen users and nonusers, it was observed that people who use sunscreen have healthy skin and develop wrinkles and other signs of aging very late in life. 

Moreover, various studies have implied that sunscreens can help prevent three types of damage from the harmful sun-rays: 

  • Sunburn 
  • Skin cancer 
  • Premature aging 

This damage is mainly caused by UV rays(ultraviolet rays) from the Sun. UV rays contain three types of radiation: UVA, UCB and UVC. While UVB is mainly responsible for skin burning, UVA is now known for causing premature wrinkles on skin and changes in skin texture

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Why do we get tanned?

Have you ever wondered why people of color (POC) are more likely to tan after an unprotected sun exposure while Caucasian skin gets a sunburn?

White skin or Caucasian skin is more likely to get a sunburn (redness or peeling) when exposed to the sun rather than a suntan because of very little melanin (pigment ) in their skin. Melanin production can also be triggered by other factors such as - after an injury (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) when the skin is trying to repair the damage. As a result of new tissue production, new melanin is produced, causing hormonal imbalance, aging, etc.

Melanin is the natural pigment in the human body responsible for giving skin, hair, and eyes their respective color. The amount of melanin pigment present in the skin determines the skin tone - light or dark. While lighter skin has less melanin, darker skin has more melanin. Melanin helps to defend the skin against UV rays. When exposed to sunlight, the melanocytes (cells where melanin is produced) make more melanin defense against the damaging UV rays.  

Can sunscreen prevent premature skin aging?

There are various factors responsible for skin aging.  

These factors can be mainly divided into two types:  

  • Extrinsic factors (unhealthy diet, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, stress, ultraviolet rays). UV rays generate reactive oxygen species (ROS) that create an antioxidant imbalance and leads to a condition termed oxidative stress. Thus we keep on advising to always put on a broad-spectrum sunscreen without fail, be it rain or shine. Oxidative Stress damages collagen and elastin, the protein fibers responsible for skin plumpness and elasticity. As a result, skin starts to look saggy, develops hyperpigmentation, develops wrinkles and fine lines before time. 
  • Intrinsic factors ( Hormonal mechanism, Mitochondrial DNA damage, Free radical mechanism). 

Although intrinsic factors are most imminent, extrinsic factors can be prevented in today’s time. Photoprotection is an effective way to avoid aging skin, including sunscreen usage, protective clothes, and sunglasses.

Moreover, Phytochemicals such as resveratrol, quercetin, and green tea extract have also been reported to reduce the aging process's progression.

In 2013, research was conducted in Australia (Published in ‘Annals of Internal Medicine’ in 2013.), which involved a randomized controlled trial using data from The Nambour Skin Cancer Prevention Trial.

The study compared 903 adult subjects divided into four groups: 

  • Those instructed to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to their head, neck, arms, and hands each morning (and again after sweating or bathing). 
  • Those who could apply the same sunscreen whenever they wished.
  • Subjects receiving a beta-carotene supplement each day 
  • Those who were given a placebo supplement. 

After nearly 5 years, the researchers analyzed latex impressions taken from the backs of the subjects' hands. After considering all the factors like the amount of sun exposure and smoking (which can also prematurely age skin) and analyzing them, they found that those adults who used the broad-spectrum sunscreen daily showed "no detectable increase" skin aging.

Moreover, coarser and wrinkly skin was 24 percent less among subjects who use sunscreen daily than subjects using sunscreen products only on a discretionary basis. 

Does sunscreen prevent tanning?

Tanned complexion might look gorgeous (thanks to the Victoria’s Secret Angels glorifying them), but did you know that it is actually harmful to the skin?

A tan indicates DNA damage by UV rays, speeding up the skin's aging process and exposes to the risk of having skin cancer. The ozone layer absorbs UV radiation from the sun. But, some percentage of Ultraviolet-A and Ultraviolet-B rays reach the earth's surface. UVA is mostly known for causing premature skin aging and skin cancer, while UVB causes skin burn.

SPF(Sun protection factor) indicates how well a sunscreen protects the skin from harmful UV radiation from the sun. Sunscreen with a higher SPF level has a broader spectrum of UV rays that can prevent harming the skin.

You might have noticed or heard that even after applying sunscreen on your skin, you still get a little tanned after staying under the sun for a long time. This is because sunscreen can block not all the UV rays from the sun. Despite this, sunscreen with a higher SPF level can block UV rays up to a greater extent. To prevent tanning, the best sunscreen would be with a broad spectrum SPF 50. But remember, regardless of the SPF number, one should reapply the sunscreen every couple of hours for the best protection from the skin. A higher SPF doesn’t mean it needs to be applied less. 

How to get rid of suntan and prevent premature aging? 

You are one of those who skip sunscreen for most of your life. As a result, you are likely to show signs of tanning, pigmentation, and fine lines before time. But Lady Luck is good to you today because you have just the right solution for all your skin woes.

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Vitamin C is usually suitable for all skin types, but the concentration is the key to an ingredient's effectiveness.

Final Word 

Moreover, don’t forget to look at the sunscreen ingredient list to make sure that it’s compatible and skin-friendly.

You would want to make sure the sunscreen you choose is free of comedogenic ingredients and fragrances to prevent breakouts and skin irritation.