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by Jim Miller MD

June 14, 2009

Welcome to summer! Recently, a U.S. Masters Swimming member who is in her 20s approached me with a question about her "baby wrinkles" from the years of swimming outside. What could she do before they got too bad? She did not want the leather face of the tanning disciples or her older colleagues of 40 (!) What caused them besides the sun? Well, the simple answer is, aside from genetic complexion, nothing caused them but exposure to the sun.

What creams or mixes will help her baby wrinkles? Skin lubrication with moisturizers daily or multiple times per day will help the skin to restore as much as it is capable of doing. The big problem is that each year's sun damage is layered over the damage of prior years - it is not a clean slate each year. The sun thins the skin and damages the elasticity of the skin, causing sagging and wrinkling. Unfortunately, the skin on our faces, which is the most exposed skin we have, is also the thinnest, so it is the most prone to damage. The message here is that your moisturizer needs to have a high level of sun block built in, throughout the year. I'll not get into the benefits of all the different rejuvenating creams with vitamin E, lanolin and everything else that has been tried. Studies are somewhat conflicting but one thing is clear: Nothing is as good as what you came with originally. Protect it! When applying sun block, remember ears, lips, nose, and wear a hat - full brim - not a ball cap with your ears hanging out.

This quickly takes me to the topic of SPF, or sun protection factor levels. What do they mean? As the SPF level goes up, the sun blocking protection goes up. However, the duration of protection does NOT go up. So, an SPF 14 and an SPF 25 both last the same length of time. Since we are all aquatic athletes, you should expect to have a lotion/cream/spray/gel to last about four hours. I know, there are ones that say they are good for ALL DAY PROTECTION. Really, does this make sense? Not hardly. The effects of swimming, toweling, sand, salt water, goggles up and down, fins/paddles on and off, time of day, and method of application all come into play here. Take home message: reapply at four hours whenever possible. For those of you who swim that open water 25K, there are some sun blocks that stick in place better than others. They are greasy and usually tough to apply, but worth the effort. What is the best block? This is actually an easy answer: zinc oxide. Remember the white stuff your mother put on your nose (or in the 70s green, pink, orange, blue)? That is it! However, there is now a clear version that works great and is available through your pharmacist. If applied correctly, it is close to being a complete block.

So now that I have ruined that golden brown tan, is there anything else to worry about? What about freckles? Well, freckles are sun damage! Sure they are real cute when you are 3 years old with a full head of red hair. But, have you ever seen cute freckles on the face of a wispy, balding 50-year-old guy? Maybe, but what you are more likely to see in the future is biopsy sites from his medical practitioner. The message here is also simple: If you have a skin area that is changing in any way, have someone look at it. Change means that the cells are mutating and that is not a good thing. Do not wait. In this case, a dose of paranoia is a good thing. Don't trust anything on the skin that is in transition. If you are vigilant, you may be lucky enough to catch that innocent mole before it turns into one of several types of skin cancers.

Anything else? Of course: According to an overwhelming majority of health experts, tanning beds = BAD!

So back to the title of our article. Is there a link between baby wrinkles and leather face? Actually, they are the same thing - just different stages in a history of ongoing sun damage.


Dr. Jim Miller, MD is no stranger to U.S. Masters Swimming.  Dr. Miller served as U.S. Masters Swimming President from 2001-2005.  He has received the USMS Coach of the Year and the Ransom J. Arthur awards.  Dr. Miller is engrosed in the sports medicin community and has served as the Chair of the FINIA World Sports Medicine Congress amongst various other positions within the swimming sports medicine industry.