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Story highlights

Sun protection is the single most important thing you can do at any age to keep skin healthy, says one expert

Excess sugar and refined carbohydrates accelerate aging

(CNN) —  

When it comes to aging, skin shows some of the most visible signs. Wrinkles, thinning and sagging skin, and sun spots known collectively as photoaging have all led to explosive growth in the global anti-aging skin care market.

In addition, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. The good news is that both photoaging and skin cancer risk can be decreased significantly with three simple steps: reducing sun exposure, improving your diet, and choosing well-researched skin care products with clinically supported active ingredients.

According to San Francisco dermatologist Dr. Kathleen Welsh, sun protection is the single most important thing you can do at any age to keep skin healthy, and most people do a poor or incomplete job.

Here comes the sun

The sun emits two types of ultraviolet radiation that reach the Earth: UVA and UVB, both of which damage DNA in the skin. UV rays can lead to skin cancer and accelerate the loss of collagen, which naturally begins to decrease by approximately 1% per year starting at age 20, according to Welsh.

UVA rays, which make up 95% of our exposure, are less intense, so they cause tanning (which is actually a protective response), not burning. They penetrate deeper into the skin, where wrinkles are formed, and they contribute significantly more to photoaging by causing the breakdown of both collagen (a protein that keeps skin firm and youthful) and elastin (a protein that keeps skin bouncy and flexible). UVA can penetrate clouds and glass and is present during all daylight hours year-round. Tanning booths emit UVA rays that are 12 times more potent than those from the sun, so they are especially damaging when it comes to skin health.

UVB rays penetrate less deeply but are more intense, cause skin burning and play a key role in skin cancer. UVB rays are of greatest concern between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and vary by season (they are strongest from April to October) and location (the Environmental Protection Agency has an online tool to identify UV risk by location, even broken down by hour of day).

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, an estimated 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers and 90% of skin aging are caused by sun exposure, the majority of which occurs during normal daily activity, not lounging on the beach.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends staying in the shade whenever possible, wearing protective clothing and applying a broad-spectrum (which means it blocks both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher to all areas of the body that are exposed to the sun. Sunscreen should be applied 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied every two to four hours during sun exposure, according to Welsh. In addition, she always recommends big hats and sunglasses and using UV-tinted windows in your car that block up to 99.9% of UVA rays.

Your skin is what you eat

Eating a healthful diet can also play an important role in improving skin health. According to Dr. Nicholas Perricone, a dermatologist and nutritionist who has his own line of skin care products, eating an antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory diet – a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables (especially berries and leafy greens), adequate protein (especially salmon) and healthy fats (especially omega-3 fatty acids) while limiting sugar, refined carbohydrates and trans fats – is one of the most important things you can do to optimize skin health and appearance.

Inflammation throughout your body turns on enzymes that break down collagen and leads to the production of free radicals, which can damage cells. Excess sugar and refined carbohydrates accelerate aging by combining with protein and fats in the skin to form advanced glycation end-products. These AGEs accumulate in the skin over time and lead to inflammation and destruction of collagen and elastin. In addition, they react with UV radiation to create free radicals that can further damage the skin.

According to Perricone, antioxidants in your skin begin to drop after just 20 to 45 minutes of sun exposure, so making sure you have a steady dietary pool is important. He notes that patients who follow his anti-inflammatory diet strictly, which also involves cutting coffee and switching to green tea, often notice a decrease in fine lines and wrinkles and an increase in skin radiance and tone within three days.

Skin in a bottle

When it comes to anti-aging skin care products, both Welsh and Perricone agree that if you are going to make an investment, large or small, it’s important to go with products and ingredients from companies that invest in science and research.

Moisturizers can help improve dry skin, but unless they contain other active ingredients, they do not improve skin structure. Products containing antioxidants including vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid, polyphenols (plant derived phytonutrients) and COQ10 are often included in anti-aging formulas because they deliver a more concentrated dose of antioxidants directly to the skin. But the quality, dose and penetration into the skin can vary considerably from one product to another.

Retinol (including Retin-A, which is available only through a physician) tops the anti-aging list for most dermatologists due to its ability to increase collagen production, promote skin renewal and even reverse some of the effects of sun damage in the skin. Retinol can, however, cause skin irritation and dryness, especially with prescription-strength formulations, so consulting a dermatologist is always a good idea.

Growth factors; exfoliating acids such as alpha-hydroxy acid (which remove the dead top layer of skin); hyaluronic acid (for improved hydration); niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3 (which helps fight inflammation); and ceramides (natural fats that help plump the skin) can also be beneficial, according to Welsh.

Perricone is a fan of diethylaminoethanol (DMAE) for lifting sagging skin, peptides for skin rejuvenation and alpha lipoic acid (a powerful antioxidant that reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and pores), B3 and a product called vitamin C ester for improved absorption.

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What products you choose should be based on your individual needs, and remember, individual responses can vary, so if you aren’t getting the results you want, try a different product or consult with a dermatologist or skin care professional.

A few final suggestions for healthier skin: Don’t smoke (smoking speeds skin aging), manage stress, exercise regularly, and get adequate sleep. All of these lifestyle factors help keep your skin’s DNA healthier and younger-looking.

Dr. Melina Jampolis is an internist and board-certified physician nutrition specialist and author of several books, including “Spice Up, Slim Down.”