How can you naturally stall the aging effects of time? Women who avoid the sun can look up to 20 years younger than their actual age, say Harvard researchers reporting at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Dr. Alexa Kimball, a professor of dermatology, and her colleagues enlisted the help of 231 volunteers, all women ranging in age from 20 to their mid-70s. The women answered an extensive questionnaire, provided skin samples, and posed for photographs. After a panel of volunteers guessed each woman's age, the researchers performed an assessment of each woman's degree of elastosis, the accumulation of abnormal elastin (elastic tissue) in the under layer of the skin. Sometimes referred to as "photoaging," elastosis is one result of the cumulative effects of prolonged and excessive sun exposure. Finally, Kimball and her team reviewed and analyzed each woman's practices and attitudes about the sun.

Essentially, it all came down to time in the sun.

Naturally Youthful

The women with facial skin that looked older reported above-average lifetime sun exposure, while those with younger-appearing skin reported lower lifetime sun exposure.

Women with clear signs of aging skin, such as lines, wrinkles, and spots, had reported: “I love the sun” and “I really don’t pay much attention to the sun.” By comparison, women with youthful skin had said they try to stay out of the sun as much as possible, and also noted that whenever they had to be outside in direct sun, they would wear some kind of protection in the form of sunscreen and hats.

Though the researchers also looked at other lifestyle choices, the factors studied — including sleep, exercise, and drinking water showed no correlation to youthful skin. Unfortunately, Kimball and her colleagues say their results also suggest sun damage is not limited to joyful days frolicking on the beach, watching Little League games, or any other obvious example of sun exposure. Even the dim rays shining through a nearby window on a cloudy day may be harmful to the skin, says the team.

The study, known as the Multi-Decade & Ethnicity (MDE) Study, was commissioned by skincare products firm Olay with the intention of examining how female skin ages through six distinct decades and across four different ethnicities.

Source: Osborne R, Tamura M, Neuser F, et al. Relationship Between Sun Exposure and Molecular Markers of Facial Skin Aging–The Multi-Decade & Ethnicity Study. American Academy of Dermatology Conference. 2016.