Friday, July 24, 2009

The Sun and Skin Damage

A sun-kissed complexion used to be considered a sign of health, but now we know that that golden tan is just a sign of sun damage to the skin. It may look great now but the damage that basking in the ultraviolet light has done to your skin will show later in life. While some effects of sun exposure, like freckles and wrinkles, might be harmless the various forms of skin cancer are definitely not. Not that the sun is completely to blame, the UV light from tanning beds is just as harmful.

Sun exposure causes:

  • Freckles
  • Benign tumors
  • Elastosis - the destruction of the elastic tissue causing lines and wrinkles.
  • General skin discoloration
  • Telangiectasias - the dilation of small blood vessels under the skin
  • Pre-cancerous (actinic keratosis) and cancerous skin lesions, which are caused by loss of the skin's immune function

There are three main types of skin cancer:

  • Basal Cell Carcinoma: The most common type of skin cancer and is rarely fatal and easily treated if caught early. It usually appears as a flat pink, red or brown lesion on the torso or limbs, or as a small, smooth pearl-like bump on the neck, ears or face.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma: This type is also highly treatable if caught early on. It can appear as a scaly flat lesion that my bleed, crust over or itch, or it may be a firm reddish nodule on the skin.
  • Melanoma – The most serious type of skin cancer. Although it only makes up about 5% of all skin cancers, it does cause roughly 75% of all skin cancer deaths. This type usually appears as pigmented bump that may resemble a normal mole or as an irregularly shaped patch. The signs to watch for when looking for a melanoma lesion are: asymmetry, blurred edges, uneven color (usually shades of black, brown, red, white or blue), and a significant change in size or diameter.


As they say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and this is very true when it comes to protecting yourself from the sun’s ultraviolet light. There are several ways to protect one's self:

  • Apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of ant least 15 a half hour before sun exposure and every 2 hours thereafter
  • Avoid direct sun exposure as much as you can during peak UV radiation hours between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p. m. Use lotions and make up with UV protection
  • Remember UV radiation is just as harmful during overcast days and in the winter as it is when it’s sunny in the summer
  • Wear sunglasses with 100% UV protection to avoid possible cataracts later in life
  • Wear wide brimmed hats to protect neck, ears and face (as funny as they may look)
  • Consistently check your skin for irregularities or growths

A note about sunscreen

While sunscreens are improving many don’t protect skin from sun damage sufficiently. The FDA has set guidelines for UVB protection but not for UVA. The difference between the two is that UVB rays are associated with sunburn and skin cancer, while UVA rays are associated the deterioration of elastin and collagen that causes wrinkling and sagging of the skin. However, we now know that both UVA and UVB cause premature aging and cancer of the skin, so when looking for sunscreens, be sure to get one that has both UVA and UVB protection.

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