Friend or Foe? The Dangers of Sun Exposure

By Dr. Cathy Davis

Many people believe that a suntan creates beauty and a healthy glow. Basking in the sun may produce a golden tan today but sunbathers will pay the price tomorrow. A tan is actually the body’s way of protecting itself from harmful rays. Sunburn is damage to the skin caused by the sun’s UV rays. Tanned skin attained in either the sun or in a tanning booth is actually the main cause of early wrinkling and aging. It also increases the risk of skin cancer. Sun exposure in general causes most of the skin changes considered to be normal parts of aging.

What are the dangers from the sun’s harmful rays?

The sun contains both ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B (UVA and UVB) rays which are an invisible form of radiation. They damage the skin causing early wrinkles, skin cancer, eye damage and other skin conditions. Being in the sun for too long, too often can cause skin cancer even without burning. If burning and peeling occurs, the danger worsens. Remember, the sun is a radiant and radiation can cause cancer.

The cumulative effects of sun exposure increase the risk of early wrinkling, age spots and skin cancer – including melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. A golden tan may be desired by many but that tan color is actually the result of an injury to the epidermis, the top layer of the skin. Exposure to the sun’s UV rays accelerates the effects of aging and the risk of developing skin cancer. The sun, tanning booths and sunlamps may all take a toll on the skin.

The sun’s rays cause skin to look old and wrinkled long before its time. More than 80 percent of early skin aging in adults is caused by tans and burns that occurred before the age of 18. Over time, the sun’s UV rays damage the fibers in the skin called elastin. When these fibers breakdown, the skin begins to sag, stretch and lose its elasticity. Skin has memory and remembers the damage that has been done but the effects don’t appear for more than 20 years later. This makes it difficult for many to realize the damage occurring because the negative effects do not appear right away. It is these structural changes that occur over time that increases the risk for early wrinkling and other skin problems.

Parts of the body repeatedly exposed to the sun are particularly susceptible to sun damage. They include the neck, face, ears, hands, forearms and shoulders, back, chests on men and front and backs of the legs on women.

What are the skin changes sun exposure may cause?

Spending too much time in the sun may cause:

  • Wrinkles
  • Freckles
  • Uneven pigmentation/discolored areas of the skin
  • Pre-cancerous (actinic keratosis) and cancerous (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma) skin lesions
  • Benign tumors like solar lentigines or liver spots
  • Telangiectasias – the dilation of blood vessels under the skin
  • Sun spots – particularly on the upper chest on women
  • Labial lentigo – discoloration/freckles on the lips
  • Solar elastosis – loss of elasticity that causes lines and wrinkles
  • Melasma – mask of pregnancy

What are the risk factors for skin damage?

Although anyone is susceptible to skin damage, there are several factors that increase the risk for skin cancer and other forms of sun damage. They include:

  • Fair-skin or complexion
  • Light, blond or red hair
  • Light blue or green eyes
  • Many moles or freckles
  • Working outside
  • Much sun exposure as a child
  • History of sunburn
  • Personal or family history of skin cancer
  • Tanning in a tanning bed or using a sunlamp
  • Taking certain medications like acne medicine
  • Exposing certain foods that are more light sensitive to the skin including limes, papaya and celery

Are tanning booths safe?

Fake tanning indoors is not without risk. The harmful UV rays that tanning beds exert may be more harmful than the sun. Tanning in general damages the skin causing premature wrinkles. And, any UV light increases the risk for skin cancer. The biggest risk of skin cancer comes from burning which occurs frequently in tanning beds.

What is the best way to prevent sun damage and protect the skin?

The best way to prevent skin damage and protect the skin is to stay indoors. But for most, that is unrealistic. To protect the skin from sun exposure, wear sunscreen with SPF30 or more. A good rule of thumb is to use one bottle of sunscreen every two to three days for a family of four. Check the expiration date on the sunscreen bottle and dispose of sunscreen that is expired. Some ingredients in sunscreen break down over time and this makes the sunscreen ineffective. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply hourly if swimming or perspiring. Remember that clouds do not protect the skin from dangerous rays. Up to 80 percent of the sun’s UVA rays go through the clouds and may reflect off of water, sand and snow.

Cover up and wear protective clothing and a big, floppy hat that shades the face, ears, neck and scalp. Clothing containing UVA/UVB sunscreen is also effective at preventing sun exposure. Wear sunglasses that wrap and block at least 99 percent of UVA sunlight. Avoid the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s rays are their strongest. Avoid tanning booths and sunlamps. The sun’s UVA rays also penetrate through glass so it is important to protect the arms and hands while driving. They can be easily exposed to harmful rays that may be damaging to the skin.

Is there a way to save skin from sun damage?

Nothing can completely undo sun damage that is done. Treatment for precancerous and cancerous skin lesions may be treated with creams, surgery or laser treatment. Sun-burned skin has to heal like any type of damage to the body. Anything that cools the skin will make it feel better.

To put it simply, the best way to prevent skin damage, premature wrinkles, skin cancer and other skin conditions caused by the sun today is to stay out of it. If that is not possible, apply sunscreen and wear protective clothing and sunglasses. Healthy, youthful skin will prevail tomorrow.

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