Saving Your Own Skin

Most people rarely think about how important their skin is in maintaining their overall health. The skin is the largest organ of the body, and the first line of defense against disease. It cools you when you're too hot, and warms you when you're too cold. Its built in sensor system keeps you aware of changes in your environment through sensations like heat, cold, pain and pressure.

To ensure your skin continues to function as it should demands daily care. One of the best ways to protect your outer layer from damage is wearing sunscreen no matter what the temperature.

Don't be fooled into thinking that in the short days of winter, the Ultra Violet (UV) rays of the sun can't damage your skin. In fact, the glare from snow or ice can increase the risk of UV damage to unprotected skin, especially on your face.

Also, the more time you spend behind the wheel, the more your skin is exposed to the sun's rays through car windows. Choosing the right sunscreen is important to get the maximum protection for your skin. That's why you should know what to look for before heading out to the local drugstore.

There are three types of UV rays: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA rays penetrate into the connective tissue in the skin causing damage such as premature skin aging. UVB rays filter into the deepest cell layers of the epidermis - the outer layer of the skin - causing sunburn, DNA-damage and skin cancer. UVC rays, which have significant carcinogenic effects on human skin, are completely absorbed in the atmosphere and never reach the Earth's surface.

Some sunscreens contain active ingredients that protect against UVA and UVB rays by allowing only a small amount of light to enter your skin. The most commonly used ingredient is Parsol 1789, also known as Arobenzone. It protects you from the majority of the rays in the UVA and UVB spectrum, which means that you only need one sunscreen that contains Parsol 1789 to protect yourself from both types of UV rays.

Other sunscreens protect your skin from sun damage with ingredients called physical blockers. These inert metals sit on the skin without being absorbed. They work by reflecting and scattering UV rays. Some well-known examples of physical blockers are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Physical blockers are equally effective as active ingredients in protecting your skin from both UVA and UVB radiation.

Another factor to consider in sunscreen is the sun protection factor (SPF) number. For routine sun exposure, a minimum SPF of 15 is recommended. Choose a higher SPF for more intensive exposure, like trips to the beach or if you are outdoors more than one hour a day.

Sun is not the only factor affecting your skin. Natural oil production peaks during the teenage years but diminishes as you age. Beyond your 30s, most people begin to see wrinkles form around the eyes and mouth.

The most important thing you can do for your skin as it slows oil production is staying moisturized. The American Academy of Dermatologists recommends moisturizers containing alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) to help remove the dead outer layers of skin, giving your face a fresher, younger appearance.

If the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles is a problem, you may want to consider botulinum toxin. Commonly known as botox, it is actually a purified form of the botulism toxin. However, when dermatologists inject it into the skin in very low doses, it is perfectly safe. A Botox injection paralyzes the affected muscle, causing the wrinkles and crows feet to soften. The effect lasts for up to six months.

Another procedure available in the battle against wrinkles is the injection of derma fillers. These substances are injected into the skin to restore fullness. One of the most popular derma fillers is Restylane®. It is made of non-animal-based hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid occurs naturally in the human body, helping to maintain moisture in the skin. The effect of this treatment can last for six months or more.

And finally, one of the best things you can do to keep your skin healthy is to exercise. Exercising increases blood circulation and delivery of nutrients to skin cells. Skin that is well-nourished produces collagen, which supports the fibers that prevent lines and wrinkles.

The best type of exercise for healthy skin is aerobic exercise, such as walking or bicycling. Not only does it promote circulation, but it also removes toxins that harm the skin, like cigarette smoke, air pollution, and the chemicals typically found in grooming products.

Your skin does so much to protect you. With a little care and attention, it will continue to do so for many years to come. Health contributor Maria Esposito contributed to this report.

For more great information on living healthy through every decade of life, click here to check out Dr. Manny's book The Check List (Harper Collins, 2007).

Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.