Find the Perfect Sunscreen for Your Skin

Are you an exceptional skin ager? Only your DNA and sunscreen know for sure.

At last year’s World Congress of Dermatology in Vancouver, Harvard Medical School (in conjunction with Procter & Gamble and the personal genetics company 23andMe) presented the Multi-Decade and Ethnicity Study which examined skin aging through every decade of life from the 20s to the 70s across four ethnicities.

The study confirmed things that we already suspected, like the fact that cell senescence (biological aging) begins in our 40s (sigh) and our skin’s ability to maintain moisture drops in our 50s as our epidermis thins (now tell us something we don’t know!).

But when examining images of women through a program that calculated perceived age versus actual skin age, researchers discovered that some women inexplicably looked much younger than they are.

In fact, 10 per cent of Caucasians and 20 per cent of African-Americans (the results for Hispanic and Asian women have not yet been evaluated) fell into the group of “exceptional skin agers.”

They were women who, from their facial appearance, looked five to 10 years younger than their actual age.

The study found these women “demonstrated stronger expression profiles of the genes associated with key biochemical pathways involved in cellular energy, cell junction and adhesion, skin and moisture barrier, DNA repair and replication and antioxidants.”

All of these are involved in biological processes that contribute to younger-looking skin.

The study is ongoing

“We all have those genes but, in these women, they work harder and better,” says P&G principal scientist Dr. Frauke Neuser.

“Some of the pathways that are working much harder in the exceptional skin agers are antioxidant production and DNA repair, which lead to their skin aging much more slowly and defying the conventional rules of aging.

The study is ongoing, and scientists are sifting through all the data so we don’t have any answers to the big questions of precisely why genes in the exceptional agers work as they do or why black women in general age more slowly. But what we do know is the bottom line: sunscreen is essential.

“Studies in the past have said that genetic structure probably only accounts for 20 per cent of skin aging, and the 80 per cent is driven by external factors,” Neuser explains.

“Whether you go out in the sun or not, whether you look after your skin, whether you’re a smoker, whether you drink alcohol, whether you exercise. We found that women who were much better about avoiding the sun at high times and were more diligent about their SPF protection were significantly more likely to be exceptional skin agers.”

Of course, given that Procter & Gamble was behind the study, the company has utilized the findings so far to reformulate their Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream ($39) to provide SPF 30 sun protection but in a truly lightweight, non-greasy formula that doesn’t feel at all like it contains SPF. “The thing with SPF products,” laughs Neuser, “if people don’t like using them, they will not. Even though they know they should.”

And while Olay’s anti-aging products contain ingredients that stimulate pathways of skin energy and collagen production, like niacinamide and olivem, to name but two, “Some of the pathways that we know are working much harder in the exceptional skin agers are the antioxidants. We know which ingredients can stimulate that,” explains Neuser. She is now tasked with creating narrowly targeted personalized skin care containing ingredients to tackle the specific gene activity patterns of each decade.

Until then, just continue using sunscreen like it’s your job.

Find your sunscreen match

While sunscreen is your best line of defence against sun damage, it needs to be paired with common sense to be effective.

In addition to wearing at least an 30 SPF sunscreen to block both UVA and UVB rays (look for the words Broad Spectrum on the label), Toronto dermatologist Dr. Sonya Cook wants her patients (and that includes you) to “avoid the sun between 10 and 4 and wear a hat and sunglasses.”

“Sunscreen should be a last line of defence,” she says. “You wear sunscreen so you can go swimming or play golf.”

Not only does sunscreen protect your skin from the DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer, but this protection also gives pre-existing damage a chance to repair. Good news given that skin repairs more slowly as we age.

And if your health and well-being aren’t enough motivation, how about sheer vanity?

“The No. 1 extrinsic driver of skin aging is UV,” says P&G principal scientist Frauke Neuser.  “Anything else pales into almost insignificance. So if you go out there without SPF protection, your skin aging will be hugely accelerated.”

Find the right sunscreen for your lifestyle so you’ll be more likely to reapply during the day instead of leaving it at home.


Our sun protection picks


Ombrelle Sport Endurance 50+. For the sports aficionado, this oil-free formula is both water- and sweat-resistant and can be applied to wet skin without having to towel off first.

Frequent flyer

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face & Body Stick Sunscreen 50+  lets you swipe on the right amount of sunscreen from a handy solid while the stick formula means you can stash it in your carry-on for airplane travel.

Delicate skinned

Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion Wet Force SPF 50+ for Sensitive Skin gets stronger in water by leveraging the mineral content of water and perspiration to create a protective veil on the skin when it’s wet.

Makeup wearer

Clinique Super City Block BB Cushion Compact SPF 50. The compact holds a sponge soaked with foundation that contains SPF, providing sweat and- humidity-resistance and shine-controlling coverage so you never have to choose between sunscreen and makeup.

Light touch

La-Roche Posay Anthelios XL 60 Melt-In Cream has a velvety texture and the U. S. version received a 100 rating from Consumer Reports for its efficacy.


Pharmacy fan

Avène High Protection Emulsion Face SPF 50+ is made with French thermal water and a minimum number of mineral filters for sensitive skin.

Beach lover 

Vichy Ultra Light Fluid for Face SPF 50 contains the broad spectrum UV screen Mexoryl and has a pleasingly lightweight, water-resistant finish for the beach bound.

Oily Skinned 

Skinceuticals Physical Fusion Matte UV Defense. The light tint evens skin tone and neutralizes any whiteness resulting from the mineral filters, while its oil-absorbing formula won’t aggravate acne-prone skin.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2016 issue with the headline, “Bare Essentials,” p. 22-23.