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5 Common Culprits in Skin Damage

Your skin is affected by everything from the sun to irritating laundry detergent and cigarette smoke.

And it can show — with anything from redness to wrinkles, and in some cases even skin cancer. But before you resign yourself to the effects of your environment on your skin, consider the five most common culprits of skin damage and find out what steps you can take to avoid them.

1. Sun exposure. The sun is the biggest cause of skin damage, says Faramarz Samie, MD, PhD, director of Mohs Surgery and vice chair of the department of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. The ultraviolet rays of the sun break down the various components of the skin such as collagen and elastin that help keep your skin looking smooth. These rays also affect melanocytes, which can lead to changes in your skin’s pigmentation. What’s more: The aging effects of the sun eventually show on your skin as wrinkles, age spots (patches of brown spots), and possibly skin cancer.

To avoid skin damage that can be caused by the sun, dermatologists advise staying out of the sun during the middle of the day when the sun’s rays are strongest, wearing protective clothing such as a hat, and using a broad-spectrum sunscreen — one that protects against both UVA and UVB rays — with a sun protection factor of 30 or higher. Don’t forget to reapply every two hours for maximum protection.

2. Free radicals. One of the ways the sun damages your skin is through production of harmful substances called free radicals, which are unstable oxygen molecules with a single electron. In short, doctors think that ultraviolet light from the sun can lead to damaged DNA and skin damage, Dr. Samie says. Free radicals may even play a role in the development of skin cancer. They are also the result of exposure to tobacco products or other environmental factors. Some skin care products contain antioxidants such as vitamins C and E that can help lessen the effects that free radicals have on your skin. Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants (especially berries, broccoli, carrots, and spinach), can also promote healthy skin.

3. Smoking cigarettes. Overall, the skin of a smoker isn’t as healthy and doesn’t heal as well as a nonsmoker’s skin. It also has a tendency to wrinkle easily. That’s because smoking cigarettes causes your blood vessels to constrict, or become more narrow, and that lowers the amount of nutrients and oxygen that reach the skin and keep it healthy. As a result, the skin loses elasticity, meaning it can’t snap back into shape as easily. This lack of nutrients also makes it harder for skin to heal when you have a wound, and can lead to skin ulcers. In women, smoking leads to lower estrogen levels, which dries out the skin.

Cigarettes can also cause the skin on your face to become dry, more prone to wrinkles and stretch marks, and appear dull and gray, according to Smokefree.gov, a website created by the Tobacco Control Research Branch of the National Cancer Institute. Wrinkles can appear in smokers as young as in the early thirties, but quitting can help you avoid premature aging.

If you have trouble quitting, talk to your doctor about the best smoking cessation option for you. Nicotine gum, inhalers, lozenges, nasal spray, and patches can all help you quit, along with prescription medications such as bupropion, varenicline, nortriptyline, and clonidine.

4. Irritants. Certain chemicals in cleaning products and laundry detergent can cause red, irritated skin and allergies in people who are susceptible, Samie says. For example, ammonia and bleach have a tendency to irritate skin. These chemicals may cause contact dermatitis, which causes scaling, irritation, and sometimes even a chemical burn. People with sensitive skin may experience more skin irritation than others. There are also over 3,000 substances in our environment that can cause allergies.

The easiest way to protect your skin from irritants is to avoid contact, either by wearing gloves when you clean or wash dishes or by switching to less irritating products. Also, moisturizing your skin can help. Some people may need an antihistamine or steroids for treatment.

5. Smiles and frowns. As you age, your skin loses elasticity, which means it loses the ability to snap back into place after you make facial expressions the way it did when you were younger, Samie says. As a result, your skin is more likely to show wrinkles even when you’re not frowning or laughing.

While there’s no need to avoid showing expression on your face, you can try to combat wrinkles by preventing skin damage from the sun by using sunscreen. You might also consider using over-the-counter or prescription wrinkle creams or other topical medications to smooth out the skin. Also, there are many procedures available to reduce wrinkles, including microdermabrasion, chemical peels, laser resurfacing, and injectable fillers such as collagen.