Most of us enjoy having fun in the sun. That old reliable star keeps us warm and lights up our days, and limited amounts of sunlight can be good for our skin, our mood, and our overall health. Solar rays help our bodies synthesize vitamin D, a nutrient that primarily reinforces our bones. Plus, researchers are now looking into the sun’s potential for lowering blood pressure. So, what’s not to love about the sun? As it turns out, there are downsides to sun exposure, too, and they can severely outweigh the benefits. But how does sunlight harm us? How dangerous is sun damage, exactly? And how can you avoid negative effects such as skin cancer while still enjoying the sun’s good graces?
To understand how the sun can harm you, you must first understand how the sun’s rays reach your skin and what happens when they do. The energy given off by the sun is known as ultraviolet radiation (UV rays). UV rays come in three major forms, neatly labeled UVA, UVB, and UVC, differing in wavelength, or strength. UVC rays do not reach beyond the ozone layer, so only UVA and UVB rays ever reach your skin. UVB rays have a shorter wavelength and only affect the upper layers of your skin, while UVA rays are longer and penetrate deeper.
While both UVB and UVA rays are benign in short bursts, prolonged exposure can put your skin at risk of damage. The tan skin received from sunlight is actually your body’s way of protecting itself from further invasion of UV radiation. With enough exposure, however, these rays will penetrate your skin beyond the outer layers and cause sunburn. When this happens, the affected skin turns hot and red, and it begins to burn, sting, and itch. Eventually, the damaged, dead skin cells will peel away.
Sunburn is unpleasant and fairly common, especially in those with fair skin. Over time, UV rays can also increase wrinkles and age spots on your skin. However, these types of sun damage are relatively mild compared to the other ways UV rays can harm your skin.
The energy from UV radiation can do more than just heat up and sear the layers of your skin. With enough exposure, UV rays can actually damage your DNA. When this happens, skin cells may begin to grow abnormally fast, creating lesions and tumors on your skin. Skin cancer is among the most prevalent kinds of cancer, and excessive sun exposure is its main cause. The three types of skin cancer are basal cell skin carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
The former two non-melanoma types of skin cancer are often easily treated when detected early enough. Melanoma is a more severe form of skin cancer that can affect other parts of one’s body. This form of skin cancer results from damaged melanocytes (cells that produce skin pigment). Melanoma can also be treated and cured if addressed immediately, but treatment becomes difficult if ignored for too long.
If the sun’s rays can burn your skin, cause wrinkles, and even lead to cancer, you might wonder if it’s best to just stay inside and close all the drapes. Fortunately, the situation isn’t so dire. You can still spend time in the sun and avoid damaging your skin, so long as you take the proper precautions.
First, limit your time in the sun. If you have lighter skin, receiving sunlight for more than 20 minutes straight can become dangerous. Those with darker skin can spend an hour or two straight before getting harmed. Of course, this isn’t much time to enjoy a sunny day. So, if you want to spend more time outside, be sure to cover your exposed skin with clothing and/or a strong sunscreen. Keep in mind the time of day and year you’re out there, too, as the sun’s rays are more powerful depending on the sun’s position in relation to yours.
The sun may be tens of millions of miles away from your body, but its effects hit close to home. Make sure you’re enjoying the good aspects of sunlight while avoiding the bad. Southeast Dermatology Specialists can give you more tips on sun safety, as well as recommend treatments and care options for your sun damaged skin. Contact us to learn more about our services and providers.