Ageing is believing

Research shows that 'skin ageing' software could be the most effective way of highlighting the harmful effects of the sun.

Most of us recognise that over exposure to the sun can cause irreparable damage to our skin, as well as increase our risk of developing skin cancer. But just what would it take to make us think seriously about sun protection?

Demonstrating the ageing effect of UV light

Through the research carried out for her newly awarded PhD, Staffordshire University graduate, Alison Williams, has shown that demonstrating the ageing effect UV light has on our faces could easily be the most effective way of encouraging us to treat the sun with respect.

Inspired by the findings of the University's Centre for Health Psychology, a research group whose work has involved using face-ageing computer software to show young women smokers how their skin will age prematurely if they continue to smoke, Alison has used the same technology to investigate attitudes towards ageing of the skin through UV exposure.

The impact of age-progression software

"Skin-ageing and body image are major concerns for young women in particular," comments Alison. "This was clearly demonstrated in the research carried out by the Centre for Health Psychology which showed that young women smokers were much more concerned about the impact of smoking on their appearance, than its effect on their health. As part of the study, the team used age-progression facial morphing software to show women how their faces would age both with and without smoking. The work was so convincing that it led to a five-year Medical Research Council National Prevention Research grant that runs to 2017."

Masters studies delivered promising results

After graduating from Staffordshire University in 2008 with a BSc(Hons) Psychology, Alison completed a Masters in Health Psychology. "For my dissertation," she says, "I carried out research using the same highly sophisticated APRIL® age-progression software as used in the smoking study. For this, I photographed a 21-year-old woman then used the software to show how her face would look at 52, 62 and 72, depending on whether or not she had used sun protection. The differences in the images were startling and my Masters work delivered promising results, in terms of impacting on attitudes and intentions towards sun protection and UV exposure."

For her PhD, Alison decided to take her work into the ageing effects of UV light even further. Once again using the APRIL® software, she set about examining the impact that showing electronically-aged photographs of the face would have on attitudes to sun exposure. However, whereas during her Masters degree research participants were shown photographs of a 21-year-old woman, this time Alison 'aged' the faces of the participants on an individual basis.

"Watching your own face age hits home"

"Being able to show people how they would age depending on their attitude to sun tanning was highly effective," comments Alison. "As one participant put it: watching your own face age, as opposed to the face of someone you don't know, really does hit home. You see just how badly the sun can damage your skin."

Three age groups selected

For her PhD research, Alison worked with three groups of people: adult females aged 18 – 34, adult males aged 18 – 34, and adolescents aged 11 – 14.

Adult females were included in her study as they represented the group subjected to the greatest media pressure to maintaining a healthy appearance. As women under 35 who regularly use a sunbed are considered to be at a far greater risk of contracting skin cancer, a number of female sunbed users were also included in the group.

Adult males were included in the research because of their tendency to be less concerned about ageing. They were also included because very little up-to-date evidence existed regarding men's attitude to sun protection.

Finally, adolescents were included in the study to establish their awareness of the risks of unprotected exposure to sunlight (at a time of life when they could still benefit significantly from taking greater care to protect their skin) and because older participants had said just how much they wished information about the harmful effects of sunbathing had been available when they were younger.

Enjoy the sunshine - safely

"I'm not for one moment suggesting that people shouldn't enjoy the sunshine," adds Alison, "After all, we see little enough of it in the UK – and it's an important source of vitamin D. Through my research, I merely wanted to find a way of showing why it is so important that people treat the sun with respect."

Use of ageing software "compelling"

"The vast majority of people who took part in the research were shocked by seeing just how much their skin would age if they didn't take proper steps to protect it from the effects of UV light," she continues. "In fact, the results were so compelling that it is clear my findings pose considerable implications for health promotion campaigns regarding sun protection and safer UV exposure."

High-ranking, peer-reviewed journals

The findings from Alison's research have already appeared in a number of high ranking peer-reviewed journals. These include: Body Image, the British Journal of Health Psychology and Psychology and Health.

Making a real impact in research

Around the globe and across the UK, researchers from Staffordshire University are making a real impact. From providing sustainable solutions to the problems faced by society, to transforming lives, tackling global issues and devising flexible new ways of teaching and learning, our academics, graduates and research students are helping to make the world a much better place.