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Beyond Sunburn: Exploring the Long-Term Effects of Sun Exposure on Skin

Beyond Sunburn: Exploring the Long-Term Effects of Sun Exposure on Skin

When heading out in the sun this summer, don’t forget to consider sunburn prevention. If you’re not a fan of slathering on sunscreen, you can still protect yourself by donning a hat, sunglasses, and long-sleeved pants and shorts. These methods can help protect you from the agony of a burn and help you avoid the long-term effects of sun exposure on the skin, which go beyond a pesky sunburn.

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are devoted to helping our patients live their very best lives, and this means taking steps to help prevent chronic diseases that can change your future health outlook. Sun protection is critical to avoiding the long-term effects of sun exposure on the skin. These effects include an increased risk of early aging, unwanted skin conditions, and skin cancer. Here’s what you need to know about the risks and benefits of sun exposure, how exposure to the sun can influence the long-term health of your skin, and how to spend time in the sun safely.

The Benefits of Sun Exposure

A little sun exposure is healthy and can help your body produce Vitamin D, which supports the strength of your bones and can reduce the risk of fracture in older age. Sun exposure also allows your brain to create the hormone known as melatonin, which can support your circadian rhythm and make it easier for you to naturally fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning. Sun exposure has also been linked to lower levels of depression and anxiety. However, too much sun exposure is often “too much of a good thing.”

The Risks of Sun Exposure

When exposed to the sun, your skin cells can become damaged. This is because the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation affects your skin cells. One type of UV light, known as UVA light, can affect the top layer of your skin and then penetrate the layers beneath this top layer, as well. This can kill or damage many different types of skin cells. A second type of UV light, known as UVB light, only hurts the top layer of your skin, but it does more damage to cellular DNA than UVA light. When you’re outside in the sun without protection, both types of ultraviolet radiation can harm your skin.

What is a Sunburn?

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a sunburn is “an inflammatory reaction to ultraviolet radiation damage to the skin’s outermost layers.” If you have light-colored skin, a sunburn can change your skin color to a more reddened hue, and it may swell or blister. If you have dark-colored skin, you may not experience a reddened sunburn because your skin tans when exposed to the sun without protection. However, when your skin tans, it is also a sign that it has been damaged, and you still risk long-term effects from sun exposure.

Sunburns are often highly uncomfortable. Once the inflammatory phase is complete, the layer of skin that the ultraviolet radiation has killed sloughs off or peels. Your skin will return to normal in appearance; however, your risk of long-term effects from sunburn remains. Experts note that a person’s risk of getting melanoma skin cancer doubles if they have had five or more sunburns.

You can manage a sunburn by moistening your skin with aloe vera gel, taking over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and applying ice for swelling and inflammation. After a few days of dedicated care, most sunburns will improve.

What are the Long-Term Effects of Sun Exposure on Skin?

Sun exposure can have many more effects than just sunburn, which will not appear immediately after the burn. Many of these effects won’t be evident for years or even decades after the initial exposure.

Loss of Moisture

When your skin is exposed to the sun, the UVA rays can cause damage to the skin cells that lie within the skin’s top layer (epidermis). This can reduce the cells’ ability to retain water, especially in the top layer (known as the stratum corneum) that helps hold water in and hydrate your skin. Researchers have found that the water content of the stratum corneum in people who participated in more outside activities was significantly lower than in those who spent more of their time indoors.

Increased Acne Flares

The agony of acne is often first experienced in adolescence. However, for many people, acne flares can continue into adulthood. You may not realize it, but sun exposure can increase your acne flare likelihood. Researchers believe that this is because acne is an inflammatory condition, and sun exposure increases inflammation within the skin. It’s also possible that when you’re spending more time in the sun, your skin dries out, and your sebaceous oil glands kick into high gear, producing excess oil to try to rehydrate your skin. This increased oil production can cause more acne lesions, as a pimple or zit results from the blockage of a sebaceous gland. Experts note that to reduce the likelihood of sun exposure triggering an acne flare, you should use a sunscreen that has emollient, antioxidant, and sebum-controlling properties to keep the skin moist and reduce the chance of excess inflammation and oil production.

Increased Freckles, Moles and “Sun Spots”

When your skin is exposed to the sun, it increases the likelihood that you will develop pigmentation changes in your skin, including freckles and “sun spots.” You’re also more likely to develop new moles. Genetics can play a role in the development of these skin changes, and often these spots are harmless. However, if you notice that a spot is changing, growing rapidly, or bleeding excessively, make sure to check in with a dermatologist to make sure that it doesn’t represent a more serious condition, such as skin cancer.

Premature Aging

The sun's UVA rays can penetrate the top layer of your skin and affect the skin cells that lie beneath the epidermis, such as the collagen and elastin cells. These cells are both important for the structural integrity of your skin, and when they become damaged by sun exposure, your skin can lose its natural suppleness. This means that you may develop more wrinkles, sagging, and skin laxity compared to a person of a similar age who has not had unprotected sun exposure. When your skin ages early because of sun exposure, it is known as “photoaging.” Luckily, it’s never too late to prevent age-related skin changes from sun exposure—you can start by using a moisturizer that has an SPF of 30 or higher.

Increased Risk of Skin Cancer

The most serious long-term risk of sun exposure is skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in both men and women in the United States. In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), one in five people in the US will get skin cancer throughout their lifetime. The deadliest kind of skin cancer, known as melanoma, kills more than 7500 people each year.

Skin cancer occurs when your skin cells start growing and dividing rapidly, often due to damaged DNA from cumulative UV radiation. This unchecked cell growth can be deadly, especially if cancer spreads beyond your skin and into your bloodstream, where it can travel anywhere in your body. The most common kind of skin cancer is known as basal cell carcinoma (BCC). If a healthcare provider, such as a dermatologist, identifies an area that may be a basal cell carcinoma or a “pre-cancer,” it can often be managed by simply removing the lesion and continuing to monitor your skin periodically. However, if you are diagnosed with a different type of skin cancer, such as squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma, treatment may be more involved, as these are usually more aggressive and more likely to spread to other areas of the body.

How to Protect Yourself From Sun Exposure

The best way to prevent skin cancer and other unwanted long-term effects of sun exposure is to stay out of the sun. Seek out shade if you must be outside during a time of high sun exposure, between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm. Make sure to cover sun-exposed areas of the skin with an SPF of 30 or higher, and reapply every 2 hours if you continue to be outside (reapply more frequently if you’re exercising or in water). Beyond these measures, you can stay healthy by getting routine skin checks from your healthcare provider and visits to evaluate new skin spots, as needed.

How to Learn More About the Effects of Chronic Sun Exposure

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are devoted to helping our patients prevent chronic illnesses, including conditions that can develop from excessive sun exposure. We pride ourselves on educating our patients about how to spend time in the sun safely and screening for sun-related conditions like skin cancers.