The Sun and Your Skin

Once considered healthy, soaking up the sun is now known to be dangerous due to ultraviolet rays that damage the skin. Overexposure to sunlight can cause wrinkles, freckles, skin texture changes, dilated blood vessels and skin cancers.

Harmful UV rays are more intense in the summer, at higher altitudes and in areas closer to the equator. Wind and the reflection of UV rays off water, sand and snow increase the sun’s harmful effects.

Harmful effects of the sun

  • Sunburn: With overexposure to sunlight, the skin develops redness that may increase for 24 hours. A severe sunburn causes skin tenderness, pain, swelling and blisters. Additional symptoms such as fever, chills, upset stomach and confusion indicate a serious sunburn that requires immediate medical attention. Your dermatologist may recommend medication to reduce pain, swelling and fever for a severe sunburn. Wet compresses, cool baths and soothing lotions may provide some symptom relief.
  • Tanning: Once thought to be a sign of good health, a suntan is actually a sign of skin damage. Tanning occurs when the skin tries to protect itself from UV rays by producing more pigment or melanin which darkens the skin. Indoor tanning is as harmful as sunlight if not more. Studies have shown that the type of UV rays produced by most salon tanning equipment are more likely to contribute to premature wrinkling and skin cancer.
  • Aging: Years of overexposure to the sun’s UV rays can cause premature aging. Skin can develop a tough, leathery texture, large freckles called “age spots,” and scaly growths (actinic keratosis) that may develop into skin cancer.
  • Skin Cancer: More than 90% of all skin cancers occur on sun-exposed areas of the skin, most often on the face, neck, ears, forearms and hands. The three most common types of skin cancer are basil cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. All three types of skin cancer can be cured with early detection and treatment. Without treatment, some can be deadly, especially melanoma. Visit the Skin Cancer section of this website for detailed descriptions and report any suspicious skin growths or moles to your dermatologist immediately.
  • Allergic reactions: Some people develop an allergic reaction with bumps, hives, blisters or red blotches appearing on the skin after only a short time in the sun. Sometimes these reactions are due to cosmetics, sun preparations, medications or other products used on the skin. Sun exposure may cause a skin rash in people who take certain birth control pills or medications for arthritis, blood pressure or depression. Your dermatologist can help if this occurs.
  • Diseases: Diseases that can be made worse by sun exposure include chicken pox, cold sores, and a number of less common disorders. UV rays can also cause cataracts, the gradual clouding of the lens of the eye.

Tips for Sun Protection

Protecting your skin from the sun will help prevent skin damage and reduce the risk of skin cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends taking the following precautions:

  • Avoid deliberate sunbathing
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses outdoors
  • Wear tightly woven clothing to cover the skin
  • Avoid peak sunlight hours between 10 am and 4 pm (9 am to 3 pm central time) when the sun’s rays are most intense. Schedule outdoor activities in the early morning or late afternoon.
  • Stay in the shade as much as possible
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects you from both UVA and UVB rays) with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 daily on all exposed skin including the lips, even on cloudy days. Apply the sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going outdoors and reapply even water-resistant sunscreen every two hours, and after swimming or sweating.

Sun Protection for Children

Protecting children from the sun is especially important since most of our life-time sun exposure occurs before age 20 and severe sunburns in childhood may increase the risk of skin damage and skin cancers significantly.

Sun protection for children should begin in infancy. Infants under six months of age should be kept out of direct sunlight and covered by protective clothing. A sunscreen recommended by your dermatologist should be used on children under six months only if prolonged sun exposure cannot be avoided.

After age six months, apply sunscreen to all exposed skin daily and follow the above tips to help protect your child’s skin.

  • Avoid deliberate sunbathing
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses outdoors
  • Wear tightly woven clothing to cover the skin
  • Avoid peak sunlight hours between 10 am and 4 pm (9 am to 3 pm central time) when the sun’s rays are most intense. Schedule outdoor activities in the early morning or late afternoon.
  • Stay in the shade as much as possible
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects you from both UVA and UVB rays) with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 daily on all exposed skin including the lips, even on cloudy days. Apply the sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going outdoors and reapply even water-resistant sunscreen every two hours, and after swimming or sweating.

By learning about skin issues caused by poor sun protection and following the guidelines developed by the American Academy of Dermatology, you and your family can enjoy sunny days safely.