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Americans spend billions of dollars each year on "wrinkle" creams, bleaching products to lighten age spots, and skin lotions to keep skin looking smooth and healthy. But the simplest and cheapest way to keep your skin healthier and younger looking is to stay out of the sun.

Sunlight is a major cause of skin changes we think of as aging--changes like wrinkling, looseness, leathery-dryness, blotchiness, various growths, yellowing, or pebbly texture. Still, one-third of all adults sunbathe even though they know that sunlight can hurt their skin.

Your skin does change with age--for example, you sweat less and your skin can take longer to heal. You can delay these changes by staying out of the sun.

Sun Damage

Over time, the sunís ultraviolet (UV) light hurts the fibers in the skin called elastin. The breakdown of these fibers causes the skin to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to snap back after stretching. The skin also bruises and tears more easily and takes longer to heal. So while sun damage may not show when youíre young, it will later in life.

Nothing can completely undo sun damage, although the skin can sometimes repair itself. So, itís never too late to begin protecting yourself from the sun.


People who smoke tend to have more wrinkles than nonsmokers of the same age, complexion, and history of sun exposure. The reason for this difference is unclear. It may be because smoking interferes with normal blood flow in the skin.

Skin Cancer

Sun damage also causes skin cancer. The chance of developing skin cancer increases as people age, especially for those who live in sunny areas of the country. There are three types of common skin cancers:

  • Basal cell carcinomas are the most common. They almost never spread to other vital organs, but should be removed since they will get bigger and can affect areas that are nearby.
  • Squamous cell carcinomas are less common but are potentially more harmful because they can grow quickly and spread to other organs.
  • Malignant melanomas are the most dangerous of all the skin cancers because they may spread to other organs and when they do, they are often fatal.

Finding any cancer early and treating it quickly is important, especially in the case of melanoma. The best defense against skin cancer is paying attention to the warning signs. If there is a sudden change in the look of a mole or a new spot, see a doctor. Look for differences in color, size, shape, or surface quality (scaliness, oozing, crusting, or bleeding). Have a doctor check any dark colored spots.

Dry Skin and Itching

Dry skin is common in later life. About 85 percent of older people develop "winter itch," because overheated indoor air is dry. The loss of sweat and oil glands as we age may also worsen dry skin. Anything that further dries the skin (such as overuse of soaps, antiperspirants, perfumes, or hot baths) will make the problem worse.

Dry skin itches because it is irritated easily. If your skin is very dry and itchy, see a doctor because this condition can affect your sleep, cause irritability, or be a symptom of a disease. For example, diabetes and kidney disease can cause itching. Some medicines make the itchiness worse.

Maintaining Healthy Skin

The best way to keep skin healthy is to avoid sun exposure beginning early in life. Here are some other tips:

  • Do not sunbathe or visit tanning parlors and try to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  • If you are in the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. always wear protective clothing--such as a hat, long-sleeved shirt, and sunglasses.
  • Put on sunscreen lotion before going out in the sun to help protect your skin from UV light. Remember to reapply the lotion as needed. Always use products that are SPF (sun protection factor) 15 or higher.
  • Check your skin often for signs of skin cancer. If there are changes that worry you, call the doctor right away. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that older, fair-skinned people have a yearly skin check by a doctor as part of a regular physical check-up.
  • Relieve dry skin problems by using a humidifier at home, bathing with soap less often, and using a moisturizing lotion. If this doesnít work, see your doctor.


For more information about skin, contact:

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) Clearinghouse
1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675 301-495-4484

National Cancer Institute (NCI)
9000 Rockville Pike
Building 31, Room 10A24
Bethesda, MD 20892
1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD)
930 North Meacham Road
Schaumburg, IL 606173-4965

The Skin Cancer Foundation
245 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2402
New York, NY 10016
1-800-SKIN-490 (1-800-754-6490)


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