The sun may feel good on the skin after a winter of gray skies, but there are hidden dangers in sunlight that you can't block out completely with sun screen. Each year, more than 65 thousand people are diagnosed with skin cancer. Dermatologists see people with skin damage who have relied on sun screen to protect them. Here is how the sun affects your skin and how to keep yourself from becoming one of these skin cancer statistics.
Sunlight and Its Invisible Components
The visible light that you see around you is just one element of sunlight, and it's the most benign one. The remaining three components are invisible and two of them are what pose a danger to you:
- Ultraviolet A (UVA) - These are the majority of ultraviolet (UV) waves that hit the planet and they are present year round. These waves pass through clouds, glass and light material.
- Ultraviolet B (UVB) - These waves are only present throughout the summer months. They can be blocked by glass and clothing.
- Ultraviolet C (UVC) - These UV waves rarely hit the ground because the atmosphere blocks them.
When you're in the sun, your skin absorbs UVA and UVB waves, of which, UVA are primarily responsible for your tan.
Your Tan is Your Skin's Response to Potential Damage
When exposed to UV waves, your skin creates a pigment called melanin. This is a dark colored pigment designed to absorb the UV waves so they don't damage the delicate cells and tissues in the skin. The dark color is what you call your tan.
Your body has a limit to the amount of melanin it can produce, so extended exposure to the sun allows more UV waves to enter. UVA waves go deep into the skin while UVB waves stay superficial. UVB waves are responsible for sunburns and cancers on the skin while UVA waves trigger cancer cells to develop below the skin's surface.
Sun Tan Lotion Offers a Limited Defense
Lotions limit the number of UV waves that get to, and through the skin. The SPF (sun protection factor) of a lotion indicates how long you can stay in the sun until your skin becomes red. The higher the SPF, the longer you can stay in the sun without skin damage. To be protected, you must use a lotion that says it protects against both UVA and UVB waves. You must use the lotion as directed, coating your skin evenly and reapplying frequently to get the best protection.
If you don't follow the manufacturer's instructions for the lotion, or stay out in the sun longer than the lotion will protect you, your skin will begin to absorb more UV waves and you'll damage the cells. This is a sunburn. Frequent unprotected exposure to the sun's UV waves can trigger certain skin cells to become cancerous.
When You Notice Changes in Your Skin
If the red color of your skin doesn't go away, or a sunburn develops a dry, scaly patch, see a dermatologist right away. Other signs of overexposure include:
- brown patches on your skin that don't go away
- broken blood vessels under the skin
- dry, wrinkled skin
These are signs of skin damage and need to be treated before they become cancerous.
The best way to protect your skin from damage from the sun is to follow the directions on the bottle of sun tan lotion and limit your skin's exposure to the sun. Take frequent breaks out of the sun. See a skin doctor like one from Billings Clinic at the first sign of changes in your skin that don't go away in a few days.