| The Sun and Your Skin
Soaking up the sun’s rays used to be
consider real healthy…before we learned
about the dangers of ultraviolet rays.
Sunlight can be used to treat some skin diseases,
but we all need to avoid overexposure to the
sun. Too much sun can cause sunburn,
wrinkles, freckles, skin texture changes, dilated
blood vessels, and skin cancers. It may
also cause rash problems.
The sun produces both visible and invisible
rays. The invisible rays, known as ultraviolet-A
(UVA) and ultraviolet-B (UVB), cause most of
the problems. Both cause suntan, sunburn,
and sun damage. There is no “safe” UV
Harmful UV rays are more intense in the summer,
at higher altitudes, and closer to the equator. For
example, Florida receives 150% more UV than
Maine. The sun’s harmful effects
are also increased by wind and reflections
from water, sand, and snow. Even on cloudy
days, UV radiation reaches the earth and can
cause skin damage. The UV index is a
prediction of ultraviolet intensity in a given
location. It can be found in the weather
section of most large daily newspapers and
some television weather forecasts.
Using sun protection will help prevent skin
damage and reduce the risk of cancer. Sun
protection should always start avoiding peak
sun hours and dressing sensibly. Most
clothing absorbs or reflects UV rays, but white
fabric like loose-knit cotton, and wet clothes
that cling to your skin, do not offer much
protection. The tighter the weave, the
more sun protection it will offer. The
American Academy of Dermatology recommends
that you avoid deliberate sunbathing, wear
a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and protective
clothing. If you must be in the sun,
use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor
(SPF) of at least 15, even on cloudy days.
Sunscreens work by absorbing, reflecting,
or scattering the sun’s rays on the skin. They
are available in many forms, including ointments,
creams, gels, lotions, sprays, and wax sticks. All
are labeled with SPF numbers. The higher
the SPF, the greater the protection from sunburn,
caused mostly by UVB rays. Some sunscreens,
called “broad spectrum”, block
out both UVA and UVB rays. These do a
better job of protecting skin from other effects
of the sun. However, sunscreens are not
Sunscreens should be applied about 20 minutes
before going outdoors. Even water-resistant
sunscreens should be reapplied about every
two hours, after swimming, or after strenuous
Beach umbrellas and other kinds of shade are
a good idea, but they do not provide full protection
because UV rays can still bounce off sand,
water, and porch decks. Remember, UV
rays are invisible.
Your chances of developing a sunburn are greatest
between 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun’s
rays are strongest. It’s easier
to burn on a hot day, because heat increases
the effects of UV rays, but you can get burned
on overcast days as well.
Sun protection is also important in the winter. Snow
reflects up to 80 percent of the sun’s
rays, causing sunburn and damage to uncovered
skin. Winter sports in the mountains
increase the risk of sunburn because there
is less atmosphere at high altitudes to block
the sun’s rays.
If skin is exposed to sunlight too long, redness
may develop and increase for up to 24 hours. A
severe sunburn causes skin tenderness, pain,
swelling, and blistering. Additional
symptoms like fever, chills, upset stomach,
and confusion indicate a serious sunburn and
require immediate medical attention. If
you develop a fever, your dermatologist may
suggest medicine to reduce swelling, pain,
and prevent infection.
Unfortunately, there is no quick cure for
minor sunburn. Cool, wet compresses,
baths, and soothing lotions may provide some
A tan is often mistaken as a sign of good
health. Dermatologists know better. A
suntan is actually the result of skin injury. Tanning
occurs when UV rays enter the skin and it protects
itself by producing more pigment or melanin.
Indoor tanning is just as bad for your skin
as sunlight. Most tanning salons are
ultraviolet-A bulbs. Studies have shown
that UVA rays go deeper into the skin and contribute
to premature wrinkling and skin cancer.
People who work outdoors or sun bathe without
sun protection can develop tough, leathery
skin, making them look older than they are. The
sun can also cause large freckles called “age
spots”, and scaly growths (actinic keratoses),
that may develop into skin cancer. These
skin changes are caused by years of sun exposure. Protecting
children from the sun is especially important,
since most of our lifetime exposure occurs
before the age of 20.
Wrinkles are directly related to sun exposure. They
can be intensified by smoking. Your dermatologist
and dermatologic surgeon can treat these with
a variety of surgical methods including chemical
peels, laser surgery, dermabrasion, and soft
More than 90 percent of all skin cancers occur
on sun-exposed skin. The face, neck,
ears, forearms, and hands are the most common
places it appears.
The three most common types of skin cancer
are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma,
Basal cell carcinoma usually develops on the
face, ears, nose, and around the mouth of fair-skinned
individuals. It can start as a red patch
or shiny bump that is pink, red, or white. It
may be crusty or have an open sore that does
not heal, or heals only temporarily. This
type of cancer can be cured easily if treated
Squamous cell carcinoma usually appears as
a scaly patch or raised, warty growth. It
also has a high cure rate when found and treated
early. In rare cases, if not treated,
it can be deadly.
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin
cancer. It usually looks like a dark
brown or black mole-like patch with irregular
edges. Sometimes it is multicolored with
shades of red, blue, or white. This type
of skin cancer can occur anywhere on the body
and when found early, can be cured. If
ignored, it spreads throughout the body and
can be fatal.
Some people develop allergic reactions to
the sun. These reactions may show up
after only a short time in the sun. Bumps,
hives, blisters, or red blotches are the most
common symptoms of a sun allergy. Sometimes
these reactions are due to cosmetics, perfumes,
plants, topical medications, or sun preparations. Certain
drugs, including birth control pills, antibiotics,
blood pressure, arthritis, and depression medications
can cause a skin rash with sun exposure. If
this occurs, a dermatologist can help.
Some diseases can be made worse by the sun,
including cold sores, chickenpox, and a number
of less common disorders such as lupus erythematosus. UV
rays also can cause cataracts, a gradual clouding
of the lens in the eye.
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a SPF
of at least 15 on all exposed skin, including
the lips, even on cloudy days.
- IF exposed to water, either through swimming
or sweating, a water-resistant sunscreen
should be used.
- Reapply sunscreen frequently.
- Wear a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
- Sit in the shade whenever possible.
- Wear protective, tightly woven clothing.
- Plan outdoor activities early or late in
the day to avoid peak sunlight hours between
10am and 4 pm.
Everyone should be able to enjoy sunny days. By
using a little common sense, as well as the
guidelines developed by the American Academy
of Dermatology, you can safely work and play
outdoors without worrying too much about skin
cancer or wrinkles. But if either should
occur, your dermatologist has specific expertise
in treatment options.
This information is also
available as a
brochure from the American Academy of Dermatology (adobe