With summer right around the corner, it’s time to refresh everyone’s memories on proper sun care and signs of sun damage. Many people rely on sunburn to be their only indication of sun damage, but did you know that many forms of sun damage can occur without sunburn ever appearing?
Not only that, but sunburn doesn’t fully show itself for 24 to 72 hours after the burn takes place. Even if you’re a little pink when you head home from your day in the sun, your burn may continue to develop for days—leaving you red, sore, blistered, and with an increased risk of melanoma.
It’s important to know that sunburn is a serious condition, despite how common it is. Always bring you SPF products with you when you’ll be in the sun for more than 15 minutes, and help those around you! If you see someone turning pink, let them know!
That being said, today we’re focusing on non-sunburn forms of sun damage. There are many ways your skin will tell you when it is suffering after sun exposure, and none should be ignored.
What is sun damage?
All forms of what we call sun damage come from the sun’s radioactive ultraviolet (UV) rays. We categorize the sun’s UV rays into three categories, UVA, UVB, and UVC, based on their wavelengths and strengths.
UVC rays are the strongest UV rays; however, they are also the shortest, and mostly absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere. So when UV rays are discussed in relation to sun damage and protection, we’re only ever discussing UVA and UVB rays.
UVB rays are the next-shortest UV wavelengths, and are able to penetrate the top layers of the skin. UVB rays are “responsible” for sunburn, and they are also able to alter the DNA of the skin cells. UVB rays make up around 5% of the UV radiation that reaches earth.
The remaining 95% of the UV radiation that reaches earth comes from UVA rays. As the longest UV rays, UVA rays are able to penetrate more deeply into the skin, which leads to the formation of free radicals—damaged cells that go on to damage DNA, skin structure, and more. UVA damage affects collagen and elastin function, which leads to skin texture changes, including visible signs of aging such as wrinkles and sagging skin.
UV rays can penetrate glass, bounce off surfaces, and are prevalent even in overcast weather. The safest way to think about UV rays is to assume they’ll find you, so you need to protect yourself. It sounds serious because it is!
Signs of sun damage other than sunburn
The reason it’s important to know about the different UV wavelengths and their dangers is because it showcases the ignorance of believing that the only visible form of sun damage is sunburn. As you just read, sunburn from UVB rays doesn’t even account for UVA damage—which is far more likely to happen with the prevalence of UVA rays!
With so many people believing that sunburn is the only sign of damage, it’s time to educate for a healthier future. Signs of sun damage may include:
- Tanning—while many people who are prone to tanning will get tan even with an SPF on, major tanning is a sign of cell damage caused by the sun! This includes damage caused by tanning beds, which are literally radiation beds. If you’re desperate for a tan, use a self-tanning product.
- Actinic keratoses—scaly patches of skin, including raised bumps that look like warts. Generally found on the face, ears, scalp, neck, arms, or hands. May be red, pink, dark tan, or even the same color as your skin. They may itch. 10% turn into skin cancer. Actinic cheilitis is the same condition, but found on the lips, and is usually white and scaly.
- Rosacea—most common in white women between the ages of 30 and 60, and may be caused or exacerbated by many other triggers. Appears as pink or red skin, most commonly across the cheeks and nose, with small pimples that come and go.
- Age spots—areas of discoloration that may be as small as extra-large freckles, or as large as quarters. Age spots tend to darken with age, but tell your doctor if it becomes suddenly darker, changes shape or texture, or has variations in color.
- Wrinkles—while some age-related wrinkling can be attributed to movement and other types of damage, many wrinkles are a gift from sun damage. Sagging, drooping skin, as well as rough and tough skin texture, are also signs of sun damage.
- Poikiloderma of Civatte—a less-commonly known skin condition that is literally also called sun aging. It colors your neck, cheeks, and possibly other areas of the face, turning them to a reddish-brown. There is also often sensations of burning, itching, and sensitivity.
- Atypical moles—odd moles are very common, but if you see your moles grow, bleed, itch, change color or shape, or feel uneven, it’s time to get it checked out.
A note on skin cancer
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the US, with one in five Americans developing skin cancer at some point in their lives. UVA ray exposure impacts the development of basal cell and squamous cell cancers, which are the two most common skin cancers. UVB rays (the ones that cause sunburn) are more likely to cause melanoma, which is the most deadly skin cancer.
These statistics are frightening, especially when one considers how common it is to hit the beach, pool, or garden without sun protection. Add to that our society’s long-standing obsession with skin tanning, which is simply UVA damage masquerading as beauty. Protect your skin.
Prevent sun damage
After that onslaught of bad news, here’s the good news: sun damage is easily prevented when you’re willing to take the correct precautions.
Wear protective clothing, especially if you’re in the sun between 10am and 12pm, when UV rays are the strongest. Wear a hat, eye protection, and lightweight clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
For skin that cannot be physically covered, use a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher. Broad-spectrum means that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
Sunscreen is typically formulated with chemical sun protectants that absorb UV rays before your skin does. Sunblock is typically formulated with minerals that physically block UV rays in the same way that clothing would. The choice is up to you and what your skin can tolerate; many companies formulate SPF products using both sunscreen and sunblock ingredients for comprehensive protection.
You can (and should) begin using SPF products on children as young as 6 months old. Most sun damage occurs before the age of 18, so apply this rule to your sun care regimen: if you’re making sure to protect your skin, make sure to protect their skin as well. For little ones, protective clothing is often easier to employ than SPF, but using both is best.
Lastly, most people do not apply enough sunscreen or sunblock. You should be using roughly 2 tablespoons of an SPF just for the face, neck, and the backs of your hands. Multiply that as needed to cover the rest of your body while in a swimsuit, and remember that no SPF product is waterproof. Some are water-resistant, which means they won’t wash off immediately, but you should still reapply every 2 hours as needed. Remember that it’s better to go home still protected by SPF than it is to skip reapplication and leave yourself exposed.
Sun damage is scary. It is a serious topic. Our culture often brushes aside the fact that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US, and that there are many forms of skin cancer—all of which will impact your life and the way you view your body. Leaving yourself vulnerable to skin cancer is serious business. Don’t fall prey to the cultural norms; keep yourself protected.