Working or playing outside on a sunny day is one of the joys of summer, but that joy can come at a price if you don't take steps to protect your skin. Luckily, protecting yourself from skin conditions caused by sun damage doesn't mean you have to hide inside during all daylight hours.
Read on to learn more about how prolonged sun exposure can damage the skin and how to protect yourself and your loved ones to prevent sun damage and skin conditions.
How does the sun damage skin?
Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) rays that can pass through the outer layers of the skin and cause damage. Two types of UV rays affect skin health: UVA and UVB. Of the two, UVA is the more dangerous one.
UV light is not all bad. The body uses it to make vitamin D to help build strong bones and fight off infections. But just a few minutes of sun exposure is enough to supply all the vitamin D most people need. After that, sun exposure does more harm than good.
What skin conditions are caused by sun damage?
1. Aging skin
As we grow older, our skin changes. The outer skin (epidermis) becomes thinner, paler and clearer. Age spots (also called "liver spots") and wrinkles can show up on the face, back of the hands and arms. Lots of factors can contribute to these changes, including family history, environment and diet, but the number one factor is sun exposure.
Sun exposure also leads to overgrowth of the cells that contain pigment (color), called melanocytes. This is especially common in people with fair skin and may occur more in some families than others. Some moles occur without sun exposure, but the sun is usually the cause. Although most moles are benign (not dangerous), they can develop into cancer.
3. Dry, itchy skin
If you put a bowl of water out in the sun, it evaporates. The same thing can happen to the moisture in your skin when you're out in the sun. This can result in dry, itchy skin. People who have a condition called xeroderma pigmentosum, in which the skin gets dry and sunburned after just a few minutes in the sun, are extremely sensitive to UV rays.
Many people associate having a tan with being in good health, but that's not true. Your skin's outer layer contains melanin, a pigment that protects against the UV radiation that comes from the sun. When those cells are exposed to UV rays, they multiply to try to minimize the harm, so a tan is actually a sign that the skin has already been damaged by UV rays. Doctors say there is really no safe level of tan, whether you get the tan from being outside or going to a tanning salon.
Not only can sunburns be painful, but they're also a clear sign of skin damage. In response to UV exposure, red blood cells rush to the affected area, making the skin red and warm. The damaged skin sends messages of pain to warn you, but by the time you get that message, you might be home from the beach. Depending on your skin type, it can take six hours or even a couple of days to feel the full effects of a sunburn. Any sunburn increases your chance of developing skin cancer, especially painful sunburns that blister or peel.
6. Skin cancer
There are several different types of skin cancer, and they affect people with all different skin colors. Some are highly curable if they're found and treated early. Others are aggressive and more difficult to treat. Exposure to UV rays increases your risk of almost all types of skin cancer, including:
- Squamous and basal cell carcinoma — These are cancers caused by years of sun exposure and UV damage. They're most common on areas of the skin exposed to sunlight. With early treatment in the form of surgical removal, these skin cancers are highly curable.
- Melanoma — This form of cancer is linked to chronic sun damage and sunburns. It is often curable when detected and treated early, but more difficult to treat after it spreads deeper into the skin or to other parts of the body.
How can you protect your skin?
It’s never too late to start protecting yourself from skin conditions caused by sun damage. Try these tips to keep your skin healthy:
- Stay indoors, particularly between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest.
- Enjoy shaded areas when outdoors.
- Wear UV-protective clothing.
- Apply sunscreen every time you go outside. Any FDA-approved sunscreen will work. SPF 30 or higher is recommended for most adults and children older than 6 months.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours while outside.
- Reapply sunscreen more often when you’re swimming or sweating.
- Get to know your body and skin features. Check yourself for changes and track them.
- Ask your primary care provider for an annual skin check or consider seeing a dermatologist, especially if you have a history of sun exposure or a family history of skin cancer.
Now that you know how to protect yourself from sun damage, you can get out there and enjoy the outdoors — safely!
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