Most of us know that sunburns are bad for the skin, especially the deep, blistering kind. But did you know that your skin can be damaged even without a sunburn? Learn the ways that the sun can injure your skin and a variety of prevention methods to keep sun damage at bay.
The sun produces UV rays -- around 95% of the UV radiation reaching the earth are UVA rays, with UVB rays making up the remaining 5%. UVB rays penetrate the top layers of the skin, causing sunburn and altering the DNA of the skin cells. UVA rays penetrate more deeply into the skin, playing a part in the formation of free radicals, which cause damage to DNA and skin structure. This damage changes the way collagen breaks down and regenerates, leading to tougher and more wrinkled skin. Sun exposure is the primary cause of aging skin. The sun’s UV rays break down the elastin in our skin, which causes our skin to sag and wrinkle, as well as bruise and tear more easily. Sun exposure is also the number one agent in the development of skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the US. One in five Americans develops skin cancer. Exposure to UVA rays lends to the development of basal cell and squamous cell cancers, the most common skin cancers. UVB rays are more likely to cause melanoma, the most deadly of the skin cancers. Every hour, 1 person in the US dies from melanoma.
While sunburns are a definite culprit in skin cancer (especially melanoma) and the early aging of our skin, most sun damage is cumulative, caused by many days of sun exposure. While many think that a tan is a sign of health, American Academy of Dermatology advises that a tan is a sign of sun damage because of your exposure to UV rays. As the skin is exposed to the sun’s radiation (or radiation from a tanning bed), it produces more melanin (the pigment in your skin) to try to protect itself from the sun damage. While the damage builds in successive tans, you escalate the aging of your skin and increase your chances of developing skin cancer. It is a myth that you can get a healthy tan. The cumulative effect of sun damage primarily causes basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. Sun damage can affect more than the skin -- it can also lead to problems with your eyes, including cataracts and macular degeneration, and cancer of the eyelid.
Sun damage happens in unexpected ways at unexpected times. Many think that you only need to protect against the sun in the hot summer months. The reality is that winter months are as dangerous as summer months for sun damage. This is especially true if you are outside when there is snow on the ground, as the UV rays bounce off of the snow, increasing their strength and ability to damage your skin. It’s also incorrect to think that you can’t get sun damage on cloudy days. UV rays can penetrate clouds and cause as much sun damage as sunny days. UVA rays can also penetrate car windows. While car windshields are treated to block UVA rays, you have to purchase UVA-blocking film to keep UV rays from penetrating your car windows (as well as the windows of airplanes, buses, and trains). You can also get sun exposure in the shade, as UV rays can bounce off of surfaces like glass on buildings, concrete, sand and water, and filter through tree leaves.
With so many opportunities to get sun damage, how can you protect yourself from the harmful effects of UV radiation? What are some skin cancer prevention and wrinkle reducing strategies you can employ? First, you can wear protective clothing, especially if you are outside when the sun is the strongest, between 10am and 12pm. Wear a hat with a large brim to cover your head, face, ears and neck. You should also wear eye protection that blocks UV rays. Some clothing comes with high UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) properties, helping block even more UV rays. Wearing sunscreen everyday is also important. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends wearing a water- resistant, broad-spectrum (meaning it protects against UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. No sunscreen is waterproof, although some are water resistant; if you are swimming or sweating, reapply every 2 hours. You should also apply sunscreen liberally--most people do not apply enough. The Mayo Clinic advises that 2 tablespoons of sunscreen (or enough to fit into a shot glass) is enough for just your face, neck and back of your hands. They also advise that using a lotion is more effective than using a spray, as it is easier to know you are applying enough sunscreen when using a lotion. Wear protective clothing and sunscreen even when driving to defend against the UV rays that come in through the windows. Finally, if you care for children, make sure to protect their skin from UV rays when on stroller rides, at the park, in the backyard or in the pool. You can apply sunscreen to children starting at 6 months. Be aware: most sun damage happens before the age of 18.
Want to know more about how to prevent sun damage and how to do a skin cancer screening? Make an appointment with the board-certified dermatologists at Vanguard Dermatology in the greater New York City area. Together, you can come up with a plan to protect your skin and the health of your family.