Your skin care products may actually be aging your skin.
You use your retinols and AHAs diligently to stave off aging and maintain a glowy complexion. But could they actually be aging you? If you’re not super-diligent with sun protection, they very well could be. Active ingredients like retinoids, salicylic acid, and glycolic acid can cause sun sensitivity, making your skin more vulnerable to the sun’s rays and more prone to sun damage (read: wrinkles and dark spots in your future). So even if you’re wearing your SPF 15 or 30 moisturizer on the regular, that daily 20-minute lunchtime walk could land you a serious case of red face. Read on for the lowdown on sun sensitivity — also known as photosensitivity — and how best to protect yourself.
Cause and effect
By now, you’ve likely surmised that vitamin A-derived retinol and prescription retinoid creams are the gold standard in skincare, beloved by dermatologists for their wrinkle-fighting, collagen-boosting benefits. But by their very nature, retinol-based products sweep away the bad (dead skin cells) to make room for the good (fresh, new skin), which can leave you more exposed to the sun’s rays if you’re not careful. “When you use a topical retinoid, it removes the layer of dead skin cells on the top of the epidermis that can make the skin appear dull,” says New York-based dermatologist Amy Wechsler. Those old skin cells, though, act as a natural barrier against the sun, offering a mild built-in layer of sun protection. Wechsler says if you whisk them away, your complexion is more exposed and therefore more easily sunburned.
The same is true of both alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids, ingredients such as salicylic, lactic, and glycolic acid, which exfoliate and essentially thin the top layer of the skin, known as the stratum corneum. “This allows UV light to penetrate more deeply,” says Debra Jaliman, a dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. Your level of sensitivity to the sun will vary by ingredient, adds Wechsler, with salicylic acid being the mildest and prescription retinoids and glycolic acid (depending on their respective strengths) being the highest. “The higher you go in strength, potentially the higher your level of sun sensitivity,” says Wechsler. One caveat, though: You have to be using these ingredients regularly, several times a week to be susceptible to these effects.
But it’s not just skin care that can make you more vulnerable to the sun’s rays. Prescription drugs such as Accutane, common antibiotics like cipro, tetracycline, and doxycycline, and anti-inflammatory pain medications Aleve and naprosyn can all cause photosensitivity, even temporarily. Wechsler recommends steering clear of retinoids and AHAs/BHAs altogether if you belong to any of the above camps, as well as those suffering from lupus or skin conditions like rosacea or psoriasis.
So now you may be thinking: Am I doing more harm than good by reaching for my retinol? Probably not, as long as you’re wearing proper sun protection daily, even as summer wanes and it isn’t blazing hot outside. Most dermatologists now recommend using full-on broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF 30 every day, even if you’re just going about your daily business. So that moisturizer with an added SPF 15 isn’t quite going to cut it. Why? “To achieve the SPF level on a bottle of moisturizer, you have to use a lot – a whole shot glass – and who uses that much?” says Wechsler. While you need to use the same amount of pure sunscreen, she says, you’re better protected, since it isn’t diluted with moisturizer.
Jaliman also advises being uber-diligent with sun safety habits while using these powerful active ingredients, such as: avoiding the midday sun from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; wearing a wide-brimmed hat; and using sun-protective clothing. Meanwhile, if you’re planning on going on vacation or spending a lot of time outdoors in the sun, Wechsler recommends taking a retinoid/AHA/BHA break, or at least decreasing the frequency while you’re going to be exposed. And of course, keep that broad-spectrum SPF close at hand, all year long. “If the whole point is to use something that will make your skin look better and healthier, then the strongest anti-aging thing to do would be to wear sunscreen. It’s pointless to [use these ingredients] and not wear sunscreen.”
September 8, 2015