Don’t Get Burned:
Identifying and Preventing Sun Damage

The sun is shining and the beach is calling your name, but if you aren’t careful a few too many days spent exposed to the sun could have a lasting impact on your skin.

People have been flocking to the beach for decades. Past generations used to lather on oil and bask under an aluminum foil reflector to bronze their skin. Lately, however, people have been more hesitant to leave the house without applying a layer of sunscreen, and for good reason. When you’re young, lying in the sun might seem harmless. The worst that will happen is you’ll get a burn that is uncomfortable for a couple days and fades away into a great tan. As you age, though, these once insignificant burns play a bigger role in skin damage. The more sun exposure you get, the worse the damage will be in the long term. Understanding the power of the sun and its long-term impact on your skin can help you make healthier lifestyle choices that will slow the aging process and help you avoid health issues.

Why Does The Sun Damage Our Skin?

When you step outside you are exposing your skin to ultraviolet (UV) radiation produced by the sun. These UV rays are responsible for your bronze tan in the summer, but also the painful sunburns that occur when you lounge outside a little too long without protection. Your body has a natural defense system to protect your body from UV rays, called melanin. Simply put, melanin is what gives your skin color. When the sun’s rays hit your skin, your body dispatches melanin to surrounding cells to absorb the UV light and protect you from sustaining more damage.

Sunscreen 101

Long-term exposure to UV radiation will not only increase your risk of skin cancer: it can also result in dark spots, wrinkles, a loss of elasticity, and discoloration in your skin. Wearing sunscreen on a daily basis can help protect your skin from these extrinsic aging factors.

Sunscreen Guide - Don’t Get Burned: Identifying and Preventing Sun Damage

UVA Radiation: These UV rays penetrate deep into the dermis and are responsible for premature aging. This type of radiation is capable of traveling through glass and windows. For this reason, even if you aren’t planning to spend the day in the sun you should still apply a sunblock.

UVB Radiation: While UVB rays cannot penetrate glass and windows, you are exposed to them on days you go outside. These rays cause damage to the superficial layers of your skin and are responsible for sunburns and skin cancer.

To protect yourself from both types of UV rays make sure you purchase a sunscreen that has broad spectrum coverage. Apply the lotion 15-20 minutes before going outside, and opt for an SPF between 30 and 50, or higher if available.

365 Days of Protection

Sun safety needs to be practiced all year round. While it might seem silly to put on sunscreen on a cloudy day or in the middle of a snowstorm, your skin will thank you. Even though it may not be hot out, the sun is still doing damage. The sun’s UV rays are still as strong as ever, even if it’s cold or cloudy. It’s not just the UV rays coming directly from above you should worry about, either. UV rays can be reflected off the ground, exposing your skin to rays from above and from the ones bouncing back off the ground. If you are planning a day of outdoor winter activities or heading out on the water, the reflection off the water, snow, or ice, paired with the sun from above, can increase your risk of getting a sunburn and serious sun damage.

Getting Optimal Sun Protection - Don’t Get Burned: Identifying and Preventing Sun Damage

Signs of Sun Damage

Sun damage can present itself in a variety of ways, ranging from mild skin discoloration to an atypical mole. Here are some of the most common types of sun damage and ways you can reverse them or slow down their progression. If you are concerned the damage is more than cosmetic, consult a dermatologist as soon as possible.

Dry Skin

Signs and Symptoms: Sunburns can range from mild to severe. A mild burn will be accompanied by painful, sometimes itchy, red skin, while a more severe burn can cause blistering, peeling, and tiny fluid-filled bumps. A sunburn may also cause fatigue, dizziness, and a fever.

Remedy: Apply a cool compress, such as a damp towel, to the affected area. If the pain is causing a great degree of discomfort, an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen or aspirin can help provide some relief. Aloe vera has been associated with sunburn relief for years. If you have an aloe plant, this is the perfect time to pluck a branch off and massage the cooling gel onto your burn. If you don’t have a plant nearby, pick up a moisturizer with aloe vera and apply it regularly to the burned area.

Actinic Keratosis

Signs and Symptoms: Also known as solar keratosis, this skin condition is associated with rough, scaly growths on your skin. These growths can range in size from pin-sized to 3cm across and are various shades of red. Caused by excessive exposure to UV rays, this condition often appears later in life and is usually harmless. If you have more than 10 actinic keratoses on your skin, it is advised that you seek a medical consult because they can become cancerous.

Remedy: Actinic keratosis can disappear on its own with time but may return. Your doctor may suggest removing the spot if it becomes a problem. A topical cream may be prescribed if you have small spots, or freezing if you have larger spots.

Sun Spots

Signs and Symptoms: Also referred to as age spots, these round patches of discolored brownish skin often appear in your late 40s or early 50s. These spots are the results of melanin clumping together and never dissolving. Because the spots are often related to prolonged exposure to the sun or tanning beds, they are frequently found on the face, neck, shoulders, hands, and arms.

Remedy: While the removal of sun spots is not medically necessary, many people choose to have them removed for cosmetic purposes. There are a variety of bleaching creams on the market that can help fade the spots over time. You can talk to your dermatologist about undergoing a peel, dermabrasion, or laser treatment. These procedures are relatively painless but it may take multiple visits before you achieve your desired results.

Identifying Atypical Moles - Don’t Get Burned: Identifying and Preventing Sun Damage


Signs and Symptoms: Called laugh lines, marionette lines, crow’s feet, and frown lines, wrinkles are the crevices that form in your skin over time. They are a natural part of aging and the result of facial muscle contractions, but too much exposure to the sun without proper protection can speed up the rate at which these lines and sagging skin appear.

Remedy: There are a variety of wrinkle creams that have been proven to reduce fine lines and wrinkles over time. The best creams are those that contain AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) and retinol. Aside from reducing wrinkles, creams with AHAs help to exfoliate, cleanse, hydrate, and brighten your skin. If you are seeking a stronger alternative, talk to your dermatologist about a retinol cream. When used on a regular basis a retinol cream provides the same benefits as AHAs while also increasing collagen production. When using these products it's important to apply sunscreen regularly. They can cause irritation and increased sensitivity. It is recommended you apply the creams at night to reduce your chances of experiencing an adverse reaction from sun exposure.

Today more and more people are opting for non-invasive cosmetic procedures. The most common options available are laser treatments, chemical peels, fillers, and botox. Talk to your dermatologist to learn more about which option is right for you.

You are never too old to begin protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. The more unprotected sun exposure you have in your lifetime the higher your risk of cancer and sun damage. By using sunscreen daily and regularly checking your body for abnormal moles and spots you are taking action to improve your skin’s health and longevity.

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