Burning Question: Does Sunscreen Really Prevent Wrinkles?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Obviously protecting your skin is No. 1 when it comes to SPF, but is your daily sunscreen application preventing wrinkles too?

Research has shown that consistent sunscreen use does have anti-aging effects on the skin, says Dr. Jeannette Graf, board certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. While aging and wrinkles are a natural and inevitable part of life, wearing sunscreen regularly can slow down that process.

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So, for superficial skin concerns, how exactly does sunscreen help slow down the aging clock? Heres what science and Graf have to say about sunscreens anti- aging effects.

How does sunscreen prevent wrinkles and aging?

Sunscreen either creates a layer on the skin that physically blocks or has chemicals that absorb harmful UV rays (mostly UVA and UVB). This helps prevent sunburn, skin cancer, and the breakdown of collagen (which leads to wrinkles).

Basically, without SPF, your skin tries to protect itself from the suns harsh rays by producing thick, splotchy pigment (hello, fried skin and sunspots). So, even though your skin means well, chances are you wont love the results and your skin is being damaged.

  • loss of skin elasticity
  • loss of volume (sagging face)
  • increased skin roughness
  • drier skin
  • irregular pigmentation
  • skin wrinkling

Photoaging is not completely avoidable, but if the right steps are taken, it can be avoided as much as possible, Graf says.

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Graf also notes that chronic sun exposure significantly increases the rate of wrinkling. And according to 2019 research, about 80 percent of facial aging is caused by sun exposure. Genes, medical, and lifestyle factors also play a role.

So, before you reach for the retinol or peptide serum, take it from Graf: Sunscreen is the best anti-aging tool out there!

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Now you understand a bit about sunscreen science, here are some receipts to prove its worth applying every day.

Graf notes that in addition to preventing skin cancer, the use of sunscreen is beneficial for sagging, wrinkles, redness, textured skin, and skin damage.

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The research agrees: A 2016 study found that peeps who used a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 daily for 1 year showed improvements in skin clarity and texture. (Pro tip: A higher SPF is even better.)

A 4-year study also reported folks who were told to apply sunscreen regularly were 24 percent less likely to show increased signs of aging compared to people who didnt receive any instructions. (See derms, we are listening!)

These photos of identical twins show how repeated sun exposure without SPF can lead to more damage over time.

Screening for sunscreens: How to choose the best SPF

Most of us know that we shouldnt be taking SPF tips from Gwyneth. But with all the options out there, what sunscreens are the best for preventing aging and wrinkles?

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Heres what Graf and the AAD recommend in a sunscreen:

Broad-spectrum. Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both harmful UVA and UVB rays.

SPF 30+. Graf recommends wearing sunscreen with an SPF of at least 50 for optimal protection. However, the AAD and many dermatologists recommend at least SPF 30. Whats the diff? SPF 50 filters out about 98 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 filters out 96.7 percent.

Mineral sunscreens. While chemical sunscreens work to absorb the UV [rays], mineral sunscreens block the suns UV rays from hitting the skin, says Graf. Bonus: mineral-based sunscreens block the short and long UVA rays responsible for aging, while some chemical sunscreens dont. Graf recommends mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide, which can be applied to the sensitive eye area without causing burning.

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Avoid potentially harmful chemical ingredients. Oxybenzone and octinoaxate are just two of a long list of chemical sunscreen ingredients harming aquatic life like coral reefs. The FDA has also found these chemicals in human blood samples and is re-evaluating a number of chemical sunscreen ingredients due to blood absorption concerns. Though these chemicals *might* not be harmful when absorbed into the skin, the reality is we just dont know.

Sunblock over SPF makeup. Although there are makeups which contain SPF, they are not as protective as an actual sunblock, Graf says. This is partly because the moisturizer content can dilute that precious SPF. So even if your makeup contains UV protection, you may want to double-up with a sunscreen. (Plus, you should be reapplying SPF throughout the day.)

Also, make sure your sunscreen of choice is legit. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), about 75 percent of 1,800 tested sunscreens in 2021 didnt provide adequate sun protection or had ingredients that could be linked to harmful effects. You can look up your sunscreen in the EWG database to learn more about its ingredients and potential safety concerns.

Apply sunscreen like a pro

When it comes to SPF application, Graf says to:

  • Use as directed and daily, rain or shine. (The AAD agrees.) The sun emits harmful rays year round, even on the cloudiest days.
  • Re-apply often: every 80 mins or so for best results, and after swimming or sweating.
  • Apply after skin care and before makeup.
  • Apply all over. (Not just wherever you want, Gwyneth style).
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Need help choosing an actual sunscreen? Here are some of our fave mineral, face, sensitive skin, and overall best sunscreen picks.

Other tips to prevent premature wrinkles

In addition to slathering on the SPF, following sun-safe tips, in general, can help you prevent cancer and wrinkles caused by photo-aging:

  • Stand under my umbrella (or ya know, just shade). Avoid standing in direct sunlight, especially during peak ray hours. The suns typically the strongest around midday, so maybe head inside for lunch.
  • Layer up like youre Mary Kate and Ashley. Wear hats and clothing that protect your skin from the sun whenever possible. (Linen FTW, yall.)
  • Wear sunglasses as religiously as Corey Hart. OK, maybe you dont actually need to wear them at night. But wearing shades that block 99 to 100 percent UVA and UVB rays can help reduce eye area sun damage.
  • Leave tanning to the Y2K era. If you really want a 2002 Paris Hilton tan, skip the bed (or coconut oil at the beach) and opt for a sunless tanner instead.

When to see a dermatologist about wrinkles and sun damage

Wearing sunscreen is the move for skin cancer and photoaging prevention, but you may also want to consult a derm when:

  • You notice a new mark. Any abnormal pigmentation or new, itching, bleeding, or changing moles are reason to head to the derm. A pink scaly spot or a pimple that never heals on its own could also be suspect.
  • Your skins seen a lot of sun. If youre worried about damage from sun exposure in general, you may want to head to the derm. Those with very light skin or a family history of skin cancer may especially want to drop in for a checkup.
  • You want to address signs of aging. Wrinkles, fine lines, crows feet: A derm can also help you address any aesthetic concerns you may have about your skin.

A dermatologist can also help you understand how to care for and if there are any ways to heal damaged skin.

Bottom line

Experts agree: Wearing sunscreen can absolutely prevent signs of premature aging, including wrinkles.

Taking care of your skin is not only important for anti-aging purposes but also to prevent skin cancer, Graf reminds us. Make sure you are applying sunscreen daily and reapply throughout the day.

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