Your Skin Care Changes As You Age — Should Your Sun Care Follow Suit?

What to do if SPF 30 is no longer cutting it.

sun care and aging

The link between sunscreen and aging is clear: Wear it religiously and keep fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots at bay. Dermatologists tout it as the single most important step in your routine for slowing the visible signs of aging, and brands have blessed us with plenty of formulas you’d actually want to slather on. While most of the products in your routine get swapped out for new options with each passing decade, sunscreen seems like an obvious constant, a fixed point in a sea of rotating products that promise to brighten, firm, and fight acne.

But just like the rest of your skin care, should your sun protection routine also evolve over time? When it comes to the signs of aging, we tend to talk about texture and volume the most, but it turns out sun sensitivity is an additional factor to consider. As you get older, you may notice that your skin becomes quicker to burn, slower to heal, and more susceptible to sun damage. Below, experts break down exactly why this happens — and what it means for how you use SPF.

Is There A Connection Between Sun Sensitivity & Age?

“Yes, there’s absolutely a connection between our skin’s sun sensitivity and aging,” says Dr. Shereene Idriss M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Idriss Dermatology in New York. The process is cyclical: UV exposure over time plays a major role in the aging process of your skin, leading to changes like hyperpigmentation and wrinkles. At the same time, aging skin is more vulnerable to UV damage because it’s thinner. “With age, our skin naturally becomes thinner due to a decrease in collagen and elastin production,” says Dr. Idriss. This causes decreased protection against UV radiation, making it more prone to damage.

Your skin’s natural functions also decrease in other ways as you get older, compounding these effects. “Your pigment-containing melanocytes also decrease,” says Sophie Bai, biotech chemist, CEO of B.A.I. Biosciences and founder of Pavise. “Combined with thinner skin and a loss of capacity for your skin cells to regenerate, this makes your skin more vulnerable to sun sensitivity.”

This decrease in melanocytes and other building blocks of your skin occurs across all skin tones —the only caveat is a slight delay in Black and brown skin. “It’s more likely to happen sooner with lighter skin tones because of less melanin and collagen, but [increased] sun sensitivity [as you age] happens across all skin tones,” says Dr. Mona Gohara M.D., board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine.


How Does Your Skin React Differently To Sun Exposure As You Get Older?

You’ll notice your skin’s increased sun sensitivity in a few different ways. The most obvious one: Sunburns take longer to heal. Dr. Gohara attributes this to the gradual slowing of your body’s functions over time, including your skin’s ability to regenerate. “We can’t run as fast in our sixties, and our skin doesn’t heal as fast,” she says.

You may also notice that you’re more prone to burning and showing sun damage than before, even with the same sun protection routine. It’s partly due to thinning skin, but it also has to do with more invisible functions. “Aging can impact your body and skin’s ability to fight off free radicals,” says Dr. Idriss. “Your body has natural antioxidant defense mechanisms, but with age, the production of antioxidants may decline.” That means your skin becomes less capable of preventing free radical damage from UV exposure, which leads to wrinkles, age spots, and hyperpigmentation.

As for when these processes start slowing down, it won’t happen overnight. While Dr. Idriss says that many of us “start losing collagen at the age of 20,” the effects are gradual and you likely won’t notice this type of sun sensitivity for a couple more decades. “It’s different for everyone, but it generally happens around age 50,” says Dr. Gohara.

How Should Your Sun Protection Routine Change As You Get Older?

As long as you’re consistently wearing sunscreen, you’re doing great. “The best sunscreen is the one you wear every day,” says Dr. Idriss. That said, if you want to maximize your sun protection routine as you get older, there are a few ingredients worth keeping in mind.

First, add hyaluronic acid to your daily routine, no matter your skin type. “Hyaluronic acid helps plump your skin, making it less likely to be damaged,” says Dr. Gohara. To combine it with your SPF step, she recommends Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost Hyaluronic Acid Moisturizer SPF 50. You’ll also want to boost your antioxidants, both through skin care and diet to help fight off free radical damage. An easy way to do this is with vitamin C serums, but many sunscreen brands now also formulate with antioxidants. “Look for sunscreens that not only protect your skin, but proactively work to repair some of that damage in the process,” says Dr. Idriss. Her top pick for patients: Isdin’s Eryfotona Actinica SPF 50, which is clinically proven to repair existing sun damage.

To make sure your SPF is doing its job, it’s more important than ever to apply it correctly. That means using two full fingers’ worth on your face and reapplying every two hours when you’re outdoors, whether it’s cloudy or sunny. “It goes a long way in protecting your skin given increased sun sensitivity,” says Dr. Idriss. If you’re not spending long periods of time outside, try a sunscreen powder. Dr. Gohara loves Colorescience’s Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50, which comes in multiple shades so you don’t need to worry about white cast.

Pay attention to your sunscreen label, too. Dr. Gohara says that as your skin becomes thinner and more sensitive, you should look for broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 30 or higher for a sufficient level of protection. A “broad-spectrum” label indicates that you’re getting protection against both UVB and UVA rays. “There are studies showing that sunscreens with high UVA protection can help reduce some common signs of aging, serving as both preventative and reparative,” says Bai. “The logic is that your sunscreen shields you from daily UV rays, and your skin cells are able to regenerate faster because they aren’t damaged by the UV rays as they work.” Her brand, Pavise, revolves entirely around this idea of photoaging prevention and repair. Pavise’s Dynamic Age Defense SPF 30 is formulated with DiamondCore zinc oxide, which the brand touts as providing the highest UVA protection possible. Naturally, it also contains a proprietary cocktail of antioxidant-rich ingredients to act on fine lines, wrinkles, and discoloration.

No matter which formula you choose, all three experts stress that consistent application remains the most important factor in your sun protection routine. “The fact of the matter is that we’re aging every single day,” says Dr. Idriss. “Just wear the damn sunscreen and you’ll be OK!”