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A good part of the reason I’ve aged well is due to serendipity. When I was in my teens and twenties I loved hats and wore them all the time. I wasn’t thinking about protecting my skin from the sun; it was just my own silly sense of fashion. I felt undressed without a funky hat.

Years later in my 30s I read an article written by a dermatologist who said that she NEVER went outside without wearing a WIDE-BRIMMED HAT and SUNSCREEN. Never? I had to think about that. When she said never, she stressed that she meant never— not even for five minutes. She claimed that she did not expose her face to the sun in the daytime at all.

I looked more closely at the photograph of the woman. She claimed she was in her 60s. She looked like she was in her 30s. Of course photos can be retouched, so, there was no way to know for sure if she really looked that young. Nonetheless, it was  astonishing enough to hold my attention and keep me reading.

At the time, I was still wearing hats, though not diligently, and certainly not wide-brimmed hats exclusively. I wore baseball caps, Kangols, Kufis– any kind of hat that I thought was cute with my outfit. I was also wearing sunscreen regularly, but I didn’t always choose one with an SPF of 30 or higher, which is what this dermatologist recommended.

As I sat there reading about her and her success in maintaining a youthful appearance, I decided I, too, wanted to age exceptionally well. That day, I determined that I would do my best to ALWAYS wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.  That was 15 years ago and it’s worked out well. My friends tease me. Sometimes they roll their eyes. But they really can’t argue with the fact that my skin looks uncommonly young for its age.

The dermatologist who wrote the article stressed repeatedly that protecting one’s skin from the sun was the single most important thing people can do to prevent aging.  I’ve since read articles by doctors that claim otherwise. For example, some say that adequate SLEEP is the single most important factor in aging well. Others claim that good nutrition is the most important thing.  But it doesn’t really matter which is “most” important; aging exceptionally well requires a variety of healthy habits. Protecting your skin from the sun should be one of your top priorities if you’re looking to remain youthful as you head into your later years. It was definitely a goal of mine 15 years ago to keep my skin from aging and having worn hats and sunscreen constantly since then, I can say with empirical knowledge that it does work.

I cringe when I’m out in the sun during the day and I see pretty young, smooth skinned women who are not wearing hats. In 10 years, their skin is going look older.  It’s a shame, because photo-aging (aging as a result of exposure to UV rays) is preventable. Even if you have a lot of melanin in your skin you will still age more gracefully if you protect your skin from the sun. An added benefit: you’ll  be protecting yourself from skin cancer. So if you don’t care about looking young, maybe avoiding melanoma will persuade you to cover up.

I know a gorgeous woman, younger than me, who used to date a close friend of mine back in the late 90s. She was stunning. I saw her a few months ago after not having seen her for 10 years (she and my friend broke up) and while  she’s still a beautiful woman, it was obvious that she has not been diligent about protecting her skin from the sun. It looked slightly leathery, with lines and blotches. She remarked that I still looked the same, but it was clear that she did not. Some aging is inevitable, of course, but aging due to sun exposure is not.

Wearing a hat all the time may not be for everyone. I understand that. Friends of mine refuse to do it, claiming it messes up their hair, or they just don’t look good in hats, or they can’t remember to carry one. Those same friends act surprised when year after year, I don’t seem to age at the same rate they do. “What’s your secret?” they ask, knowing full well I’ve shared it with them, but they just don’t want to do it.

Sun damage is cumulative. So even if you’re just going out in the full sun for a few minute here and there, over time it’s adding up. You don’t notice it day to day, but five years along, you’ll look in the mirror and wonder how it happened.

It’s not too late to begin preventing sun damage. If you don’t already use a moisturizer with sunscreen that contains an SPF of 30 or higher, get one immediately and wear it each day that you’re going to be outdoors. And next time you go shopping, visit the accessories department and pick up a few wide-brimmed hats. You need the wide brim (3 to 5 inches) because ball caps and thin brimmed hats don’t shade the entire face. You’ll want different hats for summer and winter. It’s very easy to find wide-brimmed summer hats. Wide-brimmed winter hats are more of a challenge to find, but it can be done. I’ve found some great ones at Target and at TJ Maxx.

One final bit of advice– don’t forget your HANDS. They suffer sun damage as well. Your hands will definitely give away your age if you don’t begin protecting them when you’re young. Wear sunscreen on them every day. Keep some in your car and/or in your purse so you’ll always have it ready to apply when they’re exposed to the sun.

If you begin to cultivate the habit of protecting your skin regularly, in a few years, you’re going to be so glad you did! And if you already have some sun damage, you can work on that, but in the meantime put on a hat! It’s not too late to slow down the aging process.

Wishing you health and beauty!

For more anti-aging tips look for my book VIBRATING YOUTH, which is available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon. Please follow me on Twitter @vibratingyouth