As tempting as it is to spend your days out in the summer and take in as much sun as you can, know this, the sun’s rays are not your friend. Ageing, tanning, sunburn and skin cancer, are the gifts of spending too much time in the sun. And while that glowy tan might sound appealing to some, it comes at a price.
Prolonged exposure to the sun
Before you start worrying about the time you spent in the sun recently, relax. Sun exposure over an extended period, with no protection, is usually what is dangerous.
So how does the sun affect the skin? There are different kinds of sun rays. Ultraviolet rays are the ones most damaging to human skin. Within the UV rays, there are two different kinds: UVA and UVB. Both are harmful to the skin. Prolonged, unprotected exposure to UV rays can damage skin cell DNA which can lead to skin cancer. Let’s learn a bit more about the two kinds of UV rays.
- These are the rays that cause suntan
- Are as strong on a cloudy day as a clear day
- Can penetrate windows
- Have proven links to skin cancer
- Penetrates the outermost layers of skin
- Responsible for sunburn, and suntan. Can cause blistering in some cases
- Cannot penetrate glass
So, what is a sunburn and how does it relate to skin cancer? A sunburn is a sign of cellular damage to your skin. When the UV rays penetrate too deep into our skin, they can cause DNA damage and our body tries to heal it by getting rid of it. Some people sunburn faster than others. It depends on the melanin produced by your skin. Melanin is a pigment that affects your skin colour. One of the classic signs of sunburn is that your skin will start peeling. This means that your body is trying to remove damaged cells. The signs of sunburn can depend on the colour of your skin. For lighter-skinned individuals, it might even mean their skin going pink or red. For darker-skinned people, it might mean itchy or tender skin.
Sunburn increases your chances of skin cancer. Getting a sunburn even once can increase the risk of melanoma.
Skin cancer and sunburn
Skin cancer normally develops on body parts that are frequently exposed to the sun. In the US, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer compared to all other cancers combined. 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancer cases are because of prolonged exposure to UV rays. When detected early, the recovery rate for skin cancer remains relatively high. But most people are diagnosed at a later stage. According to the Melanoma Research Alliance, for melanoma stages 0, 1 and 2, there is a 98.4% chance of five-year survival. These are the major types of skin cancer:
- Forms in melanocytes, which are skin cells that produce melanin
- A most dangerous type of skin cancer and less common
Basal cell carcinoma
- More than 80% of diagnosed skin cancer are Basal cell carcinoma
- Found in body parts that are heavily exposed to the sun
Squamous cell carcinoma
- Account for 20% of non-melanoma skin cancer cases
- Grows slowly
- Found on parts frequently exposed to the sun
Merkel cell carcinoma
- Begins in Merkel cells which are responsible for the sense of touch
- Rare and aggressive
- Usually found in immuno-compromised people
Along with the lack of sun protection, a lot of myths about skin cancer are also responsible for individuals making poor decisions about their skin health. Let’s discuss some of the myths.
- Dark-skinned individuals will not get skin cancer: This is false. People with a darker skin tone are at a lower risk of skin cancer but are not immune to it. Skin cancer is usually detected at later stages in people with darker skin.
- Applying sunscreen once a day is enough: While it’s true that applying sunscreen is important to protect yourself from the sun, there are other things to keep in mind. You need to apply sunscreen every two hours and need to know how much to apply. Protection from sunscreen wears off after you spend time in the sun, that is why it is important to reapply it.
- Winter or a cloudy day means you can relax. Snow reflects the sun’s rays, which increases the chances of sunburn and skin damage. Sun’s rays can also damage the skin when it is cloudy.
- Tanning beds are safe: There is growing evidence that tanning beds can increase the risk of developing melanoma. Tanning beds use UV rays and this can impact the skin in a myriad of negative ways.
The verdict is clear. You need to protect your skin when you go out so you can safely enjoy being in the sun. There are a few simple things we can do for protection. They are
- Wear sunscreen: Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen since that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Remember to reapply the sunscreen. It is also important to apply it to all body parts being exposed to the sun. Your neck, chest, arms and legs also need to be protected.
- Wear a hat or use an umbrella: According to a US study, an umbrella can block more than three-quarters of UV rays. Broad-brimmed hats also provide a certain amount of UV protection.
- Avoid tanning: UV beds are harmful and not only do they contribute to skin cancer, but they are also actually bad for ageing as well.
- See a dermatologist once a year: This is one of the best preventive measures. Getting a professional skin exam once a year will catch any irregularities early.