The concept of ideal beauty, like most other things in life, is constantly evolving. In the Victorian era, upper class women shielded themselves from the sun, and their pale, translucent skin was considered to be the ultimate in beauty and desirability.

When Coco Chanel got sunburned in the 1920s, tanned skin suddenly became fashionable. Today, though, this idea comes into direct conflict with our desire to retain youthful health and beauty well into our middle years — because the light of the sun is making us look old.

How Sunlight Ages the Skin

The sun’s rays contain three types of ultraviolet light. The first type, UVC light, is usually absorbed by the earth’s ozone layer and does not have much effect on our skin.

The second type, UVB, only affects the epidermis, or outer layer of skin. This is the light that causes our skin to tan and burn. UVB light is also commonly associated with the development of skin cancers.

The third type of ultraviolet light, UVA, is far more damaging. Because it penetrates below the epidermis, UVA light wreaks havoc with our skin. In addition to promoting the development of cancerous melanomas, UVA weathers the skin and makes us look older than we really are.

UVA light destroys our natural store of collagens and damages the elastin fibers that keep our skin resilient. As the damage accumulates over time, our skin starts to sag. It stretches out, and is unable to recover from stretching. Skin that is damaged by the sun is more easily bruised and injured, and takes longer to heal.

These effects — and others, including wrinkles, dark spots, freckles, and spider veins — are lumped together under the name “photoaging.”

How to Reduce the Ravages of Photoaging

Simply put — use sunscreen. This commonsense bit of advice is now backed up by a four-year study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. In the study, researchers focused on the ways that regular use of sunscreen can help to maintain youthful, elastic skin.

They followed a group of 900 participants over a four-year period and recorded changes in their skin, using a technique that maps the skin’s topography. The study shows that unlike the natural body changes that occur with time, photoaging is completely preventable.

The recommendations coming out of the study are crystal clear. We do not have to accept the effects of photoaging on our skin. Using an effective, broad spectrum sunscreen regularly will keep our skin looking and feeling youthful.

A Few Notes About Sunscreens

Many people believe the highest SPF sunscreens are the most effective. But this is not generally the case. An SPF 30 sunscreen is only 3% more effective than an SPF 15 sunscreen. The most important factor to consider is whether your sunscreen will block the damaging UVA light — and the most important practice is to re-apply sunscreen faithfully when you spend a few hours outdoors.

Additionally, some sunscreens contain chemical protectants that, while blocking the sun’s rays, can cause other health risks. For some great information on the safest, most effective sunscreens, check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) yearly guide to sunscreens.

Research proves that those pale Victorian ladies were right – although they didn’t know it. When you protect yourself from the damaging rays of the sun, you reduce the deadly risk of skin cancer and retain your youthful, resilient skin far longer.