Better sunscreen needed to protect against all-day rays

After just two exposures, UVA1 rays caused skin cells to make molecules that break down the protein called collagen, which makes skin firm, smooth, and youthful in appearance. (Credit: Rocky Lubbers/Flickr)

Most sunscreens don’t have the necessary ingredients to protect against the process that causes skin to look old and wrinkled prematurely.

New research shows that even low levels of exposure to a common component of sunlight—ultraviolet A1, or UVA1—can cause damage at the molecular level after just a few short days.

UVA1 light makes up most of the natural UV light we are exposed to throughout the day, as well as the light from tanning beds.


Researchers hope that the findings will lead to new protective ingredients in sunscreens and more caution about routine sun exposure.

For the study, published in JAMA Dermatology, researchers measured the effects of UVA1 at the molecular level using advanced gene expression analysis of skin samples from human volunteers.

They shined a low level of pure UVA1 rays, as might be encountered in daily life, on small areas of 22 volunteers’ buttocks. A day later, they measured changes in skin pigmentation. Then, they took tiny samples of skin, in order to detect which genes had been “turned on” by the light exposure. They repeated this process three more times on each participant.

After just two exposures, UVA1 rays caused skin cells to make molecules that break down the protein called collagen, which makes skin firm, smooth, and youthful in appearance.

The UVA1 also caused the skin to darken a little with each exposure, but this tan didn’t protect against further production of the collagen-destroying molecule, called matrix metalloproteinase 1 or MMP1, when the skin was exposed to more doses of UVA1.

Premature aging

“Premature skin aging from UV exposure has gotten a lot of attention in the last 10 years, but most researchers have focused on UVB rays, which cause sunburn,” says first author Frank Wang, medical dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Michigan.

“But there is very little UVB in sunlight, and most UVB exposure is at midday. During the rest of the day it’s mostly UVA, with UVA1 being the majority. UVA1 is also the main component of tanning booth light.

“So, we wanted to look at whether it can predispose skin to premature aging by simulating repetitive daily exposure. And we found that it can. Furthermore, the mild tanning that occurs does not seem to protect against damage from additional exposures.”

The study exposed the fair-skinned volunteers in a repeat manner to the amount of UVA1 they would receive in about two hours of strong sun exposure. Statistical analysis showed the pattern of MMP1 production increased progressively with repeated exposure in the majority of patients.

No escaping UVA1 rays

Wang says he often observes the collagen-damaging effects of repetitive sun or tanning booth exposure—with people in their 20s and 30s coming in for other conditions, but with clear signs of premature aging to their skin.

Researchers have previously shown similar changes in skin cells from other types of UV light—including UVB. However, in contrast with what the researchers had seen with their UVB experiments, the repeated UVA1 exposures didn’t suppress the genes that make the molecules that become collagen.

The bottom line, they say, is that the new findings suggest a need for new sunscreen ingredients that can protect against UVA1 rays. Currently, only zinc oxide and avobenzone are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as sunscreen ingredients capable of blocking UVA1. Also, window glass and most clothing don’t necessarily filter out all UVA1.

Because UVA1 light from the sun reaches the surface of the earth whenever it’s light out, the new research suggests that sunscreen with UVA1-blocking components could be useful throughout the day, not just during the peak sunburn hours of late morning to early afternoon, when UVB is most intense.

Though the current study didn’t assess the impact of UVA1 on genetic changes that can lead to skin cancers, other forms of UV are firmly linked to most types of cancerous skin lesions.

The National Institutes of Health funded the study.

Source: University of Michigan