How Does Sun Exposure Affect Your Skin?
Although 15 minutes of sun exposure a day is vital for your vitamin D intake, anything longer than this can really cause so much damage.
From premature fine lines and wrinkles to skin cancer, here are some of the ways in which sun exposure affects your skin, as well as steps that you can take to protect yourself from any damage.
Suntans and Sunburns
The most common reason that people still subject their unprotected skin to the sun’s dangerous UV rays is to develop a tan.
Do you know exactly how a tan comes about?
Well, everybody’s skin contains melanin, as this is the polymer that gives your skin its natural color. This melanin protects the skin from the sun’s UV rays, which is why those who have more melanin, and therefore a darker skin color, take longer to burn than those who have more.
In order to deal with all of the excess sun exposure, your skin ends up producing more melanin, to give itself more protection.
However, there is only so much that it can produce…
Once it has reached its capacity, the melanin can no longer provide protection to the skin, which is when sunburns begin to occur, as your skin cells end up being literally burnt by the sun’s UV rays.
In order to get rid of all of these damaged skin cells, the healthy skin cells around them begin a process to push them out, resulting in the peeling skin that usually follows a sunburn.
Why does your skin need to get rid of these burnt cells?
Because these cells have a high chance of becoming cancerous, meaning that they need to be cleared from the body as fast as possible. Even so, some damage will always remain, which is why each sunburn drastically increases your risk of developing skin cancer.
Also known as age spots or liver spots, sun spots are small, dark areas that appear on the skin.
They can vary quite a bit when it comes to size and location, although they usually tend to appear on the arms, shoulders, hands and face, as these are the areas that often receive the most sun exposure.
You will also be more likely to develop sun spots if you have:
- Light colored skin
- Red hair
- A history of prolonged sun exposure
- A history of sunburns
While sun spots can sometimes look just like a symptom of skin cancer, which is explained in more detail below, they are harmless, and will only really affect you in a cosmetic way.
Wondering what actually causes them?
As mentioned above, sun exposure causes your skin to produce more melanin. Certain areas of your skin that are more exposed to the sun will have produced more melanin over the years, and this can sometimes clump together, resulting in the dark spots.
Heat rashes often form during hot and humid weather, and tend to occur when people have exposed their skin to the sun for a prolonged period of time.
Wondering what a heat rash is?
They look like a cluster of small pimples or blisters, which is formed when your sweat ends up being trapped in your sweat ducts underneath the skin. This usually occurs in areas of your skin where there are folds, such as the neck and the elbow creases.
If you do end up with a heat rash…
Do not apply any creams or ointments, as you need your skin to be able to breathe. Instead, a powder can help to soak up excess moisture, and you should do everything that you can to keep the rash dry and cool.
Premature Skin Aging
From wrinkles to fine lines to dark spots, all of these symptoms are thought of as normal when it comes to aging, but up to 90% of all of this is actually caused by sun exposure.
This means that by protecting your skin from the sun, you will also be protecting your skin from so many of the visible signs of aging.
Think that this is an exaggeration?
There have been studies carried out with identical twins, with one twin receiving about 10 hours more sun exposure per week than the other twin.
Curious about the results?
The study showed that the twin who received more sun exposure ended up looking about 11.25 years older than the twin who received less sun exposure.
But how exactly does the sun actually cause the skin to prematurely age?
In a few different ways…
The first is by triggering a process called elastosis, which is when the elastin in the skin is destroyed, and future elastin production significantly decreases.
Since elastin is one of the proteins that gives your skin its elasticity, enabling it to bounce back to normal after it has been stretched or creased, the loss of this quickly leads to lines, wrinkles and sagging skin.
Collagen is another protein that is vital when it comes to keeping your skin firm and smooth, but this is also seriously damaged by sun exposure.
One of the most frightening effects that the sun has on the skin is the development of skin cancer, with this risk increasing with the more sun exposure you have over the years. In fact, up to 90% of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure.
There are three main types of skin cancer that are caused by the sun:
- Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC): BCC is extremely common, and usually forms on sun-damaged skin, manifesting as a pink, raised and shiny area. Since the skin is so soft, BCC can often appear as a scab, and will keep returning to the same area of your skin. BCC is a type of cancer that does not spread, but does get deeper and bigger over time if the issue is ignored
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC): Also caused by burn scars, the sun is still the primary trigger for SCC, which has been known to spread to the lymph nodes and other organs
- Malignant Melanoma: Although this is the least common of the skin cancers, rates are increasing each year, and can quickly spread to the lymph nodes and other organs, including the brain and the lungs. It is extremely important that malignant melanoma is diagnosed as early as possible, before it has had the chance to spread
While skin cancer can affect anybody, there are certain people who are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer…
Those who have fair or freckled skin, which tends to burn easier, as well as those with light eyes or blond or red hair, are all more susceptible to skin cancer, while those who have darker colored skin have a lowered risk. Moles and freckles can also indicate that your chances of developing a skin cancer is higher than average, so you need to keep an eye on these marks for any changes that may occur.
Complexion isn’t the only factor that influences how likely the sun is to trigger cancer in your skin…
Your family history will also have a huge impact, as well as your job and where you live.
It goes without saying that giving your skin regular examinations is vital when it comes to catching skin cancer as early as possible.
But what exactly should you be looking out for?
To begin with, any new moles or spots that are changing in size, color or shape. Take a look at their borders, if their edges are blurred or ragged, then this is a warning sign.
When it comes to the three types of skin cancers mentioned above, here are some specific symptoms:
- BCC – a small bump on the face, ears or neck, usually quite smooth and waxy. On the arms, legs and trunk, this tends to show up as a flat pink, brown or red lesion
- SCC – either a firm, red nodule or a scaly and rough flat lesion that may occasionally bleed. These can form anywhere, not just on the parts of your skin that are exposed to the sun
- Melanoma – a pigmented bump or patch, although it can also be white or red in color. Melanoma can sometimes look just like a standard mole, but will have a more irregular and asymmetrical, appearance
Protecting Your Skin From the Sun
The sun produces three types of UV rays, all of which are invisible to the naked eye; UVA, UVB and UVC. Fortunately, the earth’s atmosphere absorbs the majority of UVC rays that are emitted from the sun, meaning that it is just UVA and UVB that you need to worry about.
Wondering what the difference between the two is?
UVA rays are present throughout the year with equal intensity, no matter the season, and can even penetrate through thick cloud and glass. UVA rays can travel far deeper into the skin than UVB, and many scientists believe that these are the rays that initiate skin cancers.
UVA rays are also the rays that are mostly responsible for tanning, which is why tanning beds primarily emit UVA, rather than UVB, rays. This makes UVA rays the main culprit when it comes to skin aging too.
On the other hand, UVB rays do not penetrate the skin quite as deeply, affecting the outer layers the most. While UVB rays only slightly contribute to tanning and premature aging, they are key when it comes to the development of skin cancers.
Unlike UVA rays, which can damage your skin year-round, UVB rays are most prevalent between April and October, and are not able to properly penetrate through glass.
UVB rays also tend to cause the most damage between the hours of 10am and 4pm, although this does vary depending on where you live. This is why experts usually advice that people avoid direct sunlight during these hours, as that in itself can really help to protect the skin quite a bit.
Now that you know the difference between the two, you can see why it is so important to purchase a broad spectrum sunscreen, as these will have been designed to protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
However, when choosing a sunscreen, most people go by SPF alone, but SPF is the rating that measures just UVB protection, not UVA.
So how do you know how much UVA protection a broad spectrum sunscreen offers?
This will be the star rating system that you should also see on the bottle. The higher the star rating, the more effective the sunscreen is at protecting your skin against UVA rays. Ideally, you need to find a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, and a maximum star rating, as this will give your skin the best protection.
If you plan on swimming, or know that you will be sweating quite a bit, it is definitely worth investing in a water resistant sunscreen. Although these can still rub and wash off, and will need to be frequently reapplied, they will remain on your skin for far longer than a standard sunscreen.
In addition to wearing sunscreen, you should also be wearing loose, but tightly-woven, clothing that can give your skin an additional physical barrier from the sun. A sun hat and sunglasses are always helpful too, but make sure that you choose a pair of sunglasses that provides both UVA and UVB protection.
The sun can affect the skin in so many ways, and the majority of these are negative.
In order to keep your skin, and the rest of your body, in optimum health, it is so important for you to take the necessary steps to protect your skin from the sun. If, at any point, you are worried about some of the damage that the sun may have caused to your skin, do not hesitate to immediately speak to a doctor, as catching any damage as early on as possible can sometimes make all the difference.