Sun Protection

Dermatology A to Z


Sunlight and Skin

Sunlight permanently damages skin. Even ordinary sun exposure during tanning and outdoor sports causes permanent skin changes. These changes accumulate over the years, so that even moderate repeated sun exposure causes visible skin damage. Most of the wrinkling, roughening, and freckling that appears on the face, hands, and arms of Caucasian adults come from sun damage, not age. You can see this if you compare less sun-exposed sites, such as the undersides of your arms or buttocks with sun-exposed areas such as your face, neck, or upper surfaces of your arms. The natural coloration of your skin pigment protects you from the damaging effects of sunlight. Persons with fair skin (who have little pigmentation) are more prone to sun damage than dark-skinned individuals.

The skin-damaging effects of sunlight gradually lead to roughening, freckling, and wrinkling. Many people in their 30s and 40s are unhappy because their wrinkled, roughened, sun-damaged skin makes them appear 10 to 15 years older. Unfortunately, there is no way to undo these changes. Young people should realize that they’ll ultimately pay a very steep price for the temporary glamour of a deep suntan.

Sunlight contains both ordinary, harmless, visible light and shorter, invisible light rays called ultraviolet light. Sun tanning, burning, and skin damage from sunlight are caused by ultraviolet rays. Since ultraviolet rays produce both tanning and skin damage, it is impossible to tan “safely” and avoid permanent skin damage. Discussions on sunbathing that describe “safe” tanning refer to the avoidance of sunburn. By proper timing, most persons can get a deep tan without a sunburn. However, no one can get a tan without some skin damage. The ultraviolet light used by tanning beds, spas, and gymnasiums causes skin damage despite claims of safety. Avoid tanning beds.

There are two basic ways of protecting your skin from the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays: 1) protective clothing 2) sunscreens.

Guidelines for sun protection from The Skin Cancer Foundation.

1.Minimize sun exposure between 10am and 3pm. The most damaging rays are present in large amounts during these times.

2.Wear a hat, long sleeves and long pants while in the sun. Loose knits do not protect as well as tightly woven materials. Solumbra, a light, sun- protective clothing is available.

3.Apply a sunscreen before every exposure to the sun, and reapply it every 2 hours while in the sun, after swimming or perspiring heavily. Use a sunscreen with a SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or greater. I prefer a SPF of 30.

4.Use a sunscreen at high altitudes (mountain climbing or skiing)

5.Don’t forget that sun damage occurs even on cloudy and cold days.

6.Photosensitivity (an increased sensitivity to sun exposure) is a possible side effect of certain medications, drugs, cosmetics and birth control pills.

7.If you develop an allergic or adverse reaction to your sunscreen, contact your dermatologist.  Not all sunscreens cause a reaction.

8.Be aware that snow, concrete and water reflect the suns damaging rays and that even in the shade, you are being exposed.

9.Avoid tanning beds. The ultraviolet light in tanning beds causes premature aging and increases your risk of developing skin cancer.

10.Keep infants out of the sun. Begin using sunscreens on children at six months of age, and then allow sun exposure only with moderation. Some new sunscreens are safe at any age, such as Baby Blue Lizard.

11.Teach children sun protection at an early age. Sun damage occurs with each unprotected sun exposure and accumulates over a lifetime.

12.Apply sunscreens each morning as part of your routine especially if you work outdoors or live in a sunny climate.