Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer
Many people love the sun. The sun’s rays make us feel good, and in the short term, it makes us look good. But our love affair isn’t a two way street: Exposure to sun causes most of the wrinkles and age spots on our faces. Consider this: One woman at age 40 who has protected her skin from the sun actually has the skin of a 30-year-old.
We often associate a glowing complexion with good health, but skin color obtained from being in the sun can actually mean accelerated effects of aging and an increased risk for developing skin cancer.
How Sun Exposure Ages Skin
Sun exposure causes most of the skin changes that we think of as a normal part of aging. Over time, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light damages the fibers in the skin called elastin. When these fibers breakdown, the skin begins to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to go back into place after stretching. The skin also bruises and tears more easily - taking longer to heal. So while sun damage to the skin may not be apparent when you’re young, it will definitely show later in life.
Changes in the skin related to sun exposure:
- Precancerous (actinic keratosis) and cancerous (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma) skin lesions – caused by loss of the skin’s immune function
- Benign tumors
- Fine and coarse wrinkles
- Discolored areas of the skin, called mottled pigmentation
- Sallowness – a yellow discoloration of the skin
- Telangiectasias – the dilation of small blood vessels under the skin
- Elastosis – the destruction of the elastic tissue causing lines and wrinkles
What Is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of all cancers in the U.S. and the number of cases continues to rise. It is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. While healthy cells grow and divide in an orderly way, cancer cells grow and divide in a rapid, haphazard manner. This rapid growth results in tumors that are either benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
There are three main types of skin cancer:
- Basal cell carcinoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are less serious types and make up 95 percent of all skin cancers. Also referred to as non-melanoma skin cancers, they are highly curable when treated early.
What causes skin cancer?
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the number one cause of skin cancer, but UV light from tanning beds is just as harmful. Exposure to sunlight during the winter months puts you at the same risk as exposure during the summertime.
Cumulative sun exposure causes mainly basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer, while episodes of severe sunburns, usually before age 18, can cause melanoma later in life. Other less common causes are repeated X-ray exposure, scars from burns or disease, and occupational exposure to certain chemicals.
What are the signs and symptoms of skin cancer?
The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin, typically a new mole or skin lesion or a change in an existing mole on your skin.
- Basal cell carcinoma - Appears as a small, smooth, pearly or waxy bump on the face ears and neck; or as a flat, pink/red- or brown- colored lesion on the trunk or arms and legs.
- Squamous cell carcinoma - Appears as a firm, red nodule, or as a rough, scaly flat lesion that may itch, bleed, and become crusty. Both basal cell and squamous cell cancers mainly occur on areas of the skin frequently exposed to the sun, but can occur anywhere.
- Melanoma - Appears as a pigmented patch or bump. It may resemble a normal mole, but usually has a more irregular appearance.
How can I help prevent sun damage and ultimately, skin cancer?
Nothing can completely undo sun damage, although the skin can sometimes repair itself. So, it’s never too late to begin protecting yourself from the sun. Your skin does change with age – for example, you sweat less and your skin can take longer to heal, but you can delay these changes by staying out of the sun.
Maintaining Healthy Skin
These tips below can help you maintain healthy skin:
- Stop smoking – people who smoke tend to have more wrinkles than nonsmokers of the same age, complexion, and history of sun exposure. The reason for this difference is unclear. It may be because smoking interferes with normal blood flow in the skin.
- Apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater 30 minutes before sun exposure and then every few hours thereafter.
- Select cosmetic products and contact lenses that offer UV protection.
- Wear sunglasses with total UV protection.
- Avoid direct sun exposure as much as possible during peak UV radiation hours between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.
- Perform skin self-exams regularly to become familiar with existing growths and to notice any changes or new growths.
- Relieve dry skin using a humidifier at home, bathing with soap less often (instead, use a moisturizing body wash) and using a moisturizing lotion.
Eighty percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure is acquired before age 18. As a parent, be a good role model and foster skin cancer prevention habits in your child.