Lois Rogers The Sunday Times 19 July 2015
If you’re lying by a pool with the delicious sensation of the sun penetrating deep into your skin, stop reading now. Yes, you know the sun’s rays are harmful, but did you realise the shrivelled-prune effect favoured by a certain breed of thin Frenchwoman is caused by the longest waves of UVA light? While the medium-wave UVB rays crisply grill the surface of the skin, long-wave UVA bores right through into the deeper, living layers of the dermis, breaking down the plump, moisturised cushion of collagen and elastin, and leaving a hard, dry, wrinkled effect not dissimilar to a sun-dried tomato.
The skin scientist Caterina Longo of Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Reggio Emilia, Italy, has achieved worldwide recognition for her skill in adapting confocal microscopy — the latest generation of hightech laser-light imaging — to show this alarming process of accelerated ageing. “You can actually see the collagen disappearing,” she says. “Without the protection of collagen and the supportive structure of elastin, skin begins to wrinkle and age and the risk of skin cancer rises dramatically. “If we can show people these processes, they might better understand the risks they’re taking. You need collagen in your skin not just to look youthful, but to protect yourself from sun damage.”
As it would be unethical to monitor the degradation of sun worshippers’ skin as they fry themselves, Longo is now embarking on a research project with Minerva Research Labs, the manufacturer of the oral collagen supplement Pure Gold Collagen, to investigate the long-term benefits of its compounds on skin rejuvenation and sun protection. Scientists already know topical collagen can kick-start natural production of this vital skin compound — collagen dressings are used in the NHS to boost wound healing — but the effect of oral collagen supplementation on sun protection is only beginning to be understood. “We have published some scientific data showing our product migrates to the skin, where it bulks up existing collagen and stimulates the production of new supplies,” says Sara Sibilla, senior research scientist at Minerva Research Labs. “We want to better understand these processes and generate more research evidence to show consumers that this approach can work in skin rejuvenation and protection.”
Pending the arrival of a scientifically validated collagen-based sunscreen, finding the most effective UVA sunscreen to protect your natural collagen can be tricky. Light wavelength is measured in nanometers. Broadly, we need protection against all wavelengths from 290 to 400 nanometers. Although there are internationally agreed ratings of sun protection factor (SPF) for UVB, there is only the baffling European symbol of the letters UVA in a circle to indicate that a product offers at least a third of the protection against UVA as it does against UVB.
Last month, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society warned that consumers are being exposed to risk, after its research showed that most people wrongly believe an SPF rating covers UVA as well as UVB protection levels. In the absence of an agreed method, the best approach is to look for a UVA five-star rating, the system used by Boots, a PA++++ rating (a Japanese system), or packaging that states exactly what it offers.
It’s still hard to be sure, however. Boots recently suffered a setback when a study by the consumer watchdog Which? found its Soltan Protect & Moisturise Lotion SPF30 offered only two-thirds of the claimed protection. Studies funded by L’Oréal, which makes Ambre Solaire, have shown that once UVA has penetrated through the collagen, it goes on to damage skin DNA and the immune system, reviving dormant viruses such as herpes simplex (cold sores).
“The contribution of UVA to skin damage has long been estimated but only recently been better understood,” says Luc Aguilar, director of biological and clinical research at L’Oréal. “UVA radiation doesn’t change with latitude, and you need daily protection. We are now changing formulations to provide better protection and reduce damage that occurs deep in the dermis, the lower layers of the skin.” According to the New York dermatologist Adam Geyer, a consultant for Kiehl’s, the most critical UVA wavelengths are those above 370. “There is an effort among many companies to block these, but we are also fighting public resistance to the idea that everyone is vulnerable,” he says.
The problem is that visual evidence of sun damage, such as that collected by Longo, rarely makes it into the public eye. The seductive sensation of warmth is hard to associate with the wizening of old age, and most people believe they look better when they have been in the sun.
Other brand leaders say they are engaged in a public awareness battle, but is it enough? Frank Schwanke, head of research and development for Nivea Sun, says UVA filters have been constantly upgraded since the early 1990s, but admits most consumers have little idea what they are for. “We are trying to educate people, and a global UVA rating system is under discussion, but we are not there yet,” he says.
If you haven’t moved your sun lounger into the shade yet, now is the time.