Is the legacy of living in our glorious sunburnt country doing us more damage that good? It is a luxury to live in a climate where we can enjoy the outdoors almost all year round, yet Australians look to be paying the ultimate price in the ageing game.
A team of international scientists has found that the faces of women in Australia are ageing more quickly than their counterparts in Canada, the UK and the US.
The study of more than 4,000 women from around the world found moderate to severe signs of ageing 20 years earlier in Australian women compared to women in other countries.
Dermatologists at Monash University explained to smh.com.au that Australia’s proximity to the equator, the high sun elevation and generally clear skies mean we face higher levels of UV radiation than those in Europe and North America.
“These high UV levels put Australians at particular risk of photoageing, especially when combined with Australians’ traditionally outdoor, sun-seeking lifestyle and a predominantly fair-skinned population,” they added.
Unsure of how deep the risk went, the experts asked 1472 women from Australia, Canada, the UK and the US to compare parts of their faces (looking at wrinkling, pigment and sagging across the forehead, nose, cheeks and mouth) to images showing varying degrees of ageing.
The women in the trial were included on the basis that they had not had Botox, fillers, laser or plastic surgery. Nor had they experienced facial burns or trauma. They were aged between 18 and 75 and either Caucasian or Asian.
Women were also asked questions about their height, weight, skin characteristics, sun exposure history, and alcohol and tobacco use.
Not surprisingly, smoking was a major factor in facial ageing, interestingly however, alcohol was not found to be a factor. Nor was BMI. They tried to look at the effect of pollution but “people can’t tell you how much pollution they’re exposed to” so they couldn’t account for that.
The sun exposure findings however were revealing.
While the women from each country spent a comparable amount of time outdoors each day and were similar in their use of sunscreen and hats (in fact, Australian women know how to slip, slop and slap more effectively), Australian women reported “significantly more severe signs of ageing at younger ages and a greater degree of change with age for most features than women from the other countries”.
“The most significant part of this study for me was that, compared to the US, we seem to be losing weight in our face volume and face – which is a surrogate for ageing, much quicker than they are,” said lead author, Associate Professor Greg Goodman. “It was scary that the average Australian was at least 10 years and, in some cases, 20 years worse off volumetrically.”
Why is this?
Goodman touches on a few reasons. As a primarily fair-skinned, coastal population, we grow up in the outdoors and can stay outside during our winter (unlike many other countries), meaning our overall exposure to the sun is much greater.
“The amount of sunshine we have when we’re young is a major part of this study,” he said. “By the time you’re 25 you’ve already had a fair bit of your long-term sun exposure. It sets you up for ageing much quicker than people in other countries.”
But what about the fact that we are the best at applying sunscreen?
“Our use of sunscreen might almost be part of the problem,” he reveals.
He explains that because sunscreen can generally protect us from getting burnt (the result of shorter wave UVB), we think we’re safe from the long-range ultraviolet light (UVA) and “that’s causing this issue”.
The results show it is not so much in the wrinkles but in the facial fat loss resulting in sagging skin.
“It’s not just that we age badly, but that we age differently,” Goodman says. “The longer range wavelengths are denaturing our fat and we think this is because we use similar machines in fat removal these days.”
While sunscreen is important, and protects us in part, it does not provide complete protection from UV rays. So even if we don’t burn, we need more than sunscreen to protect against melanoma and, as researchers are learning, ageing.
So what can we do?
“The most important thing to think of is what we’re not doing – things like shade and things like clothing and keeping out of the sun,” Goodman says. “The amount of exposure needs to be limited in Australia.”