From premature aging to various forms of skin cancer, recent decades have brought much greater awareness of the health risks associated with getting too much sun. However, far too many Americans still find themselves giving in to the temptation of a short-term beauty fix, neglecting the sunscreen, or simply underestimating just how damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation can be.
In addition to the immediate effects of severe sunburn, including headaches, nausea, and painful blistering, UV radiation is the leading cause of skin cancer: the most prevalent form of cancer in the U.S. With cases on the rise, it is becoming clearer than ever that year-round sun protection should be a top priority for those concerned about their health.
How UV Exposure Affects the Skin
The ultra violet radiation spectrum can be divided into UVA, UVB and UVC wavelengths. While UVC rays are harmlessly absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere, both UVA and UVB rays can damage the skin’s epidermal layer. Much of this damage includes the slow degradation of elastin, a fibrous protein that helps skin to maintain its shape after stretching.
In addition to causing wrinkles, the breakdown of elastin can make the skin more susceptible to bruising and tearing, and compromise its ability to heal. Other effects of sun exposure include:
- Cancerous and pre-cancerous (actinic keratorsis) skin lesions
- Benign tumors
- Freckles and skin discoloration
- Dilation of small vessels beneath the skin (telangiectasias)
Health Issues Associated With Sunburn
Sunburn effects can range from mild irritation to severe symptoms that may require medical attention. While you may not realize it right away, you can get a sunburn from as little as 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure, particularly if you have light skin and fair hair. In addition to redness and blistering, severe sunburn can cause symptoms such as:
- Pain and tingling
- Fever and chills
Any of these symptoms is a good sign that you should get out of the sun immediately. Other basic treatments to alleviate discomfort include:
- Taking a cool bath or shower, or using a cool compress
- Drinking plenty of fluids
- Using acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relive pain
- Applying an aloe gel or moisturizer
- Keeping sunburned areas covered when outdoors
Skin Cancer and Long Term Health Effects
There are a variety of long-term health effects that can take hold long after a sunburn has faded, including several types of skin cancer. While sun-caused skin growths are not always cancerous, that can change over time, and such growths should be checked annually by a physician.
In addition to squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, which make up 95% of all skin cancers and are often curable, a tumor could also be a sign of melanoma. Left untreated, melanoma can rapidly spread to other parts of the body, and is responsible for 75% of skin cancer deaths.
Repeated sunburn is also associated with a number of other permanent health effects, including macular degeneration, compromised immune function, and cataracts.
Health Tips for Enjoying the Sun
Sunscreen is the most obvious method for protecting yourself from UV rays. You should make sure to choose a product with an SPF of at least 15, and apply it every two hours. While many products advertise resistance during swimming or exercise, it is still a good idea to reapply after a period of intense activity or sweating.
It is also important to keep in mind that you risk overexposure during the winter as well as the summer: though invisible to the naked eye, up to 80% of UVB rays are able to penetrate cloud cover. Avoiding sun exposure when rays are strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., wearing protective clothing, and finding sunglasses that filter out UVA and UVB rays are some basic sun safety tips for the whole year.