How Sun Exposure Affects Your Skin
We all love enjoying our time in the sun. However, unprotected exposure to the sun can cause damage to your skin and is the leading causes of premature skin wrinkles and aging. Repeated unprotected exposure can accelerate the effects of aging and increases your risk for developing skin cancer.
Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light can accelerate the skin’s aging process by damaging the fibers in your skin, known as elastin. Breakdown of these fibers causes the skin to stretch, sag and decreases the ability to “bounce back into place” after stretching. Damage to your skin’s elastin can also lead to your skin bruising and tearing more easily while simultaneously increasing the time it takes to heal.
Effects of Sun Exposure:
Pre-cancerous (actinic keratosis) and cancerous (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma) skin lesions, affected by a decrease in your skin’s immune functions
- Benign tumors
- Premature wrinkles
- Mottled or discolored pigmentation of the skin
- Sallowness, a yellowing tint to the skin
- Telangiectasias, dilation of small blood vessels under skin
- Elastosis, the breakdown of elastic tissue and collagen
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells, resulting in tumors, which can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Skin cancer is currently the most common form of all cancers in the United States.
The 3 most common forms of skin cancer are melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are the most prevalent form of skin cancer, making up over 95% of all cases. These less serious variants, referred to as non-melanoma skin cancers, have high cure rates when treated early. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and is the cause of over 75% of all skin cancer-related deaths. Made up of abnormal skin pigment cells called melanocytes, melanoma can spread to other organs when left untreated and can be difficult to control.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) from the sun is the primary cause of skin cancer. Many people are unaware but exposure to sunlight during winter months and UV light from tanning beds can be just as harmful as being exposed to UV rays during warmer seasons.
Repeated exposure to UV radiation is the primary cause of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer. Repeatedly getting severely sunburned, especially at an early age, can raise the risk of developing melanoma.
Who Gets Skin Cancer?
While anyone can develop skin cancer, the risks can be significantly higher for people with fair skin that burns easily. People with darker skin are still susceptible to various forms of skin cancer, albeit with substantially lower risk.
Genetic or personal histories of contracting skin cancer, regularly working or exercising outside, and living in sunny climates can also affect your chances of developing skin cancer throughout your life.
What are the Symptoms of Skin Cancer?
The most common symptom of skin cancer is the appearance of a new mole or lesion on the skin, or a visible change in an existing mole.
Basal cell carcinoma can be visible on the face, ears and neck, in the form of a small, smooth, pearly or waxy bump. It can also appear as a flat pink, reddish or brown lesion on the torso, arms or legs.
Squamous cell carcinoma can appear anywhere, but tends to occur mostly on areas of skin that are more regularly exposed to the sun’s UV rays. They can look like a firm, red nodule or rough, scaly lesion that can bleed or become crusty.
Melanoma can resemble a normal mole, but tends to have a more irregular appearance in the form of a pigmented patch or bump.
How Can I Identify Melanoma?
Use the ABCDE rule to look for warning signs of melanoma:
- Asymmetry – One half doesn’t match the other in shape or size
- Border – Ragged, blurred edges
- Color – Inconsistent shades of black, brown, tan, red, white or blue
- Diameter – Drastic change in size (larger than 6mm). NOTE: You should always consult your dermatologist with any mole that increases in size.
- Evolving – Any new mole, lesion or spot that changes in shape, size or color.
How is Skin Cancer Treated?
The treatment of skin cancer can be specialized depending on the type, size and the location on the patient, along with the individual’s preference for treatment.
Treatments for non-melanoma cancer (basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma):
- Primary Excision – Excision of the cancer with a margin of normal tissue while under local anesthesia
- Mohs surgery – Excision of cancer, utilizing microscopic examination, to verify complete removal of the cancer
- Electrodesiccation and curettage – The physical scraping away of skin cancer cells and electrosurgery
- Cryosurgery – Freezing of affected area
- Topical chemotherapeutic creams
Treatments for melanoma skin cancer:
- Wide surgical excision
- Sentinel lymph node mapping – Used for deeper lesions to ascertain if melanoma has spread to lymph nodes
- Drugs – Chemotherapy or biological response modifiers for widespread metastatic disease
- Radiation therapy – Used for local control of advanced melanoma in the brain or other areas
How Do You Prevent Skin Cancer?
Apply sunscreen regularly, and make sure to use a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater (for UVB protection) and zinc oxide (for UVA protection). Make sure to apply 20 minutes before sun exposure and reapply regularly every 2 hours or more, especially if you are sweating or swimming.
- Wear UV-protective clothing that can shield your skin completely from the sun’s UV rays.
- Wear sunglasses with complete UV protection and a hat (with wide brim) for coverage on your neck and face.
- Avoid direct sun exposure during peak UV times, generally between 10AM and 2PM.
- Inspect your skin regularly to quickly identify any new growths or changes in complexion, spots, lesions or moles.