What Is Photoaging and How Do I Prevent It?

Being the largest and most visible organ of the body and heavily influenced by environmental factors, skin is ideal to study long-term effects of aging. Throughout our lifetime, we accumulate damage generated by UV radiation. UV causes inflammation, immune changes, physical changes, impaired wound healing and DNA damage that promotes carcinogenesis, also known as cancer promotion.

So we know UV light causes everything from sunburn to skin cancer and the wrinkles and sagging that come with age. But what exactly does it do in our bodies to wreak all that havoc?

What is UV light?

Ultraviolet (UV) light is just a higher energy version of the light we see (visible light). And it's that higher energy that makes the UV in sunlight damaging to our cells and tissues. To do any damage, UV light has to be absorbed. This happens at the molecular level. And it happens one electron at a time.

Light travels from the sun to the earth as an elelectromagnetic wave. It passes through the ozone layer as waves of energy and cannot be felt nor seen by us. UV radiation can be classified into UVA and UVB.

Both UVA and UVB cause our skin to age more rapidly than if we were to avoid the sun and use proper protection (sunscreens, clothing, hats). Therefore, sun exposure is considered a form of "extrinsic aging." This means that our skin ages due to something in the environment. In fact, most premature aging can be accounted for by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Smoking, another "known carcinogen" comes in second place. "Intrinsic" aging, on the other hand, is due to our genetics: essentially it represents the biological clock of our skin cells.

What happens during sunburn?

The pain. The heat. The redness. The judgmental looks from everyone who thought to dress appropriately.

The signs and symptoms of a sunburn usually manifest as pain and are your body’s attempt to repair the damage caused by the burn . Sunburn peeling, sunburn blisters, and sunburn itch are all signs you’ve caused severe damage to your skin.The peeling often associated with severe sunburns is your body’s way of getting rid of the damaged cells. This is necessary because sun damaged cells are at risk of becoming cancerous. Even though new layers of skin form, some damage remains, and there can be an increased risk of skin cancer.


What about skin ageing?

UV exposure may account for up to 80% of visible signs of aging in the skin including dry appearance, scalping, wrinkling and impaired pigmentation, and photoaging correlates with cancer risk.

The medical term used to describe the damage the sun inflicts on our skin is "photoaging." If your skin is repeatedly exposed to sunlight without the necessary precautions, your skin loses its ability to repair itself.

Scientific studies have shown that repeated UV exposure breaks down collagen and impairs the synthesis of new collagen. The sun also attacks our elastin fibers. Without the skin's supportive connective tissue (collagen and elastin) our skin loses its strength and flexibility. Essentially, the sun makes us look older, faster.

Every time we expose ourselves to the sun, changes to our skin occur. Over time these changes will alter how our skin looks and feels. These changes don't happen overnight!

Most people mistakenly consider the changes that their skin experiences over time as a normal part of aging. The fact is that the changes that we undergo as a result of photoaging are preventable and are not the natural aging process. If our skin has not been exposed to UV radiation it ages differently.


The skin changes, caused by photoaging, that are responsible for most of the harm that we view as aged skin and that are not inevitable include:

- a leathery skin texture

- loose & wrinkled skin

- dryness

- freckles

-  sun spots (often seen on the backs of the hands, chest, shoulders, arms, and upper back commonly referred to as 'liver spots' but are strictly related to sun damage)

-  easy bruising

-  skin growths

-  rough/reddish skin patches (actinic keratoses)

-  the appearance of red blood vessels

-  thinning of and yellow discoloration of the skin


What can we do to prevent photoaging?

The best way to prevent photoaging is to limit your exposure to UV radiation by staying out of the sun, particularly between 10AM and 2PM, when the sun’s rays are the strongest. When you are outside, cover up. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to protect you from both UVA and UVB rays, which contribute to photoaging and the development of skin cancer. Apply sunscreen to your face, neck and body every day, even cloudy days and when you’re inside. UVA rays can penetrate car windows and glass. If you wear foundation makeup, apply sunscreen first and then apply your foundation.


A micro-needling procedure can help to improve the appearance of aging skin by assisting in your skin’s natural ability to remodel existing collagen and elastin.  Micro-needling causes controlled micro-injuries that stimulate your body’s natural wound healing process. The micro-injuries trigger the release of cytokines and growth factors that lead to remodeling of collagen and elastin. 

Kristina Temelkovska