We love the golden hour, especially in the summer when we feel like bronze skin makes us look much more attractive. We enjoy spending long hours outdoors: lying on the beach, sightseeing in a new city, or hiking in the mountains.
While there is a lot of good that comes from the sun and the ultraviolet (UV) radiation that it produces, there is the risk of overexposure. What you might not know is that there’s more to sunburn than a simple red patch on your skin. We have a few tips from FirstMed’s medical specialists on how to effectively protect yourself and avoid negative effects on the skin from overexposure to UV rays.
How does UV exposure damage skin?
UV radiation, invisible to our eyes, is the major form of radiation from sunlight. Intense exposure to UV rays emitted by the sun can damage your eyes and can cause serious damage to your skin, most notably certain cancers. When you expose yourself to sunlight, your body absorbs UV rays and converts them into energy. If the exposure is too great, this process can damage the cells in your skin.
There are three forms of UV rays: UVA (long-wave), UVB (mid-wave), and UVC (short-wave). Longer wavelength UVB rays cause sunburns, while short wavelength UVC rays can damage the ozone layer that protects us against the harmful effects of longer wavelength UVA and UVB rays. UVC rays can also cause severe skin burns and eye irritation, which feels like having sand in the eyes – in serious cases you cannot even use your eyes for one to two days.
UV exposure can cause premature aging to your skin (e.g. wrinkles and age spots) and even skin cancer. To understand this, first we need to know a few things about our skin’s structure. There are three layers in the epidermis: stratum corneum, melanocytes, and keratinocytes. The stratum corneum is an outer layer composed mainly of dead cells that protect your body from germs and bacteria. Melanocytes are responsible for making melanin, which gives skin its color (and a tan in the summer, if your skin is genetically receptive). Keratinocytes are cells that produce proteins such as collagen and elastin—these proteins keep skin looking smooth and firm.
If you spend too much time outside without wearing sunscreen or protective clothing, UV radiation will damage these layers over time by penetrating the epidermis and breaking down elastin fibers so they appear thinner than usual. This may manifest as wrinkles on the surface of your face when you smile or laugh!
How to treat sunburn and prevent the development of skin cancer?
To avoid sun damage, stay out of sunny places from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sunshine is the strongest. If you must go outside during these times, wear protective clothing, sunglasses and apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher that specifies protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Reapply sunscreen every two hours if you stay outside for long periods of time or as needed if you’re sweating or swimming in water that isn’t protected by a roof (such as the ocean, lake or pool).
If you get burned, relieve the symptoms by cooling the sunburned area with a cold compress or cold water, followed by a moisturizing lotion containing aloe vera.
While these precautions may seem excessive, they can help reduce your risk of skin damage due to sun exposure.
How can sunburn cause skin cancer?
While the number one risk factor for skin cancer is aging, UV radiation coming from excessive exposure to sunlight increases your risk of developing cancer later in life. The two most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma, a more serious but less common form of skin cancer, is also related to sun exposure.
Basal Cell Carcinoma and Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) may look like pink or red growths on your skin, whereas squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) can appear as red scaly patches or bumps on your skin that may bleed easily if scratched or bumped. Both of these non-melanoma skin cancers may grow slowly, but they can also spread quickly. Don’t leave these untreated, prevent the spreading to deeper layers of your skin or to other parts of your body through lymph nodes or blood vessels.
Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer. It arises when pigment-producing skin cells, the melanocytes, become cancerous. Melanomas have uneven edges and may have scalloped or notched borders, while common moles tend to have smoother, more even edges. A warning sign of a mole is the presence of multiple colors. While benign moles generally appear evenly brown or tan, melanomas often have different shades of brown, tan, or black.
By the time a melanomas has already formed, the only treatment is surgical removal or excision. Unfortunately, melanoma is becoming more common every year, especially among those who have had sunburns during childhood.
When to see a doctor about sun damage?
Early detection is crucial. Check your skin thoroughly every three months, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. Ask your partner or friend to help check areas you can’t see, like your back, the back of your ears, and your genital area. In addition to self-checks, you should also have a full-body skin examination with your dermatologist at least once a year.
Visit your doctor if you suspect the early signs of melanoma, like a new mole or a mole that has new characteristics, such as changes in shape or size, itching, or bleeding. True age spots are non-cancerous; however, if you detect a spot that is rapidly changing in size or shape, visit a dermatologist. If you spend a lot of time in the sun, have a family history of skin cancer, or have suspicious moles, you should be screened regularly from the age of 20.
How is skin cancer diagnosed?
When you schedule a visit for a skin problem, the doctor will examine your skin and decide whether you need further assessment by a specialist. A skin cancer diagnosis requires the removal of a tissue sample that is then examined under the microscope. Dermatologists perform a skin biopsy to collect the cells necessary for the procedure. A biopsy is the only way to know whether you have skin cancer.
The skin is your body’s largest organ and first line of defense and it deserves proper protection! At a minimum, UV light can cause wrinkles, dryness, and other signs of aging, but can also lead to skin cancer if not treated in time! You should always protect your skin from the sun because it can cause damage that could last for years after your tan fades away. Follow our tips to have a safe and fun summer.
If you have any questions or experience any of the symptoms detailed above, do not hesitate to contact our medical specialists. We offer special pricing for skincare consultations on Saturdays.