With any time you spend soaking up the sun, you need to remember that while it’s good to get your vitamin D in, you still need to protect your skin. Everyone needs around 15-30 minutes of sunlight a day to keep healthy levels of vitamin D. However, any exposure after this increases your chances for sunburn and skin cancer.

In this article, we’ll review how the sun affects your skin and what you need to be aware of in terms of skin cancer risk factors, signs, and symptoms.

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How the Sun Affects the Skin

When your skin is exposed to sunlight, the ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun, interact with a protein in your skin called 7-DHC. This interaction causes your body to produce active vitamin D.

Sunlight also causes your skin to produce more melanin, which is a pigment that protects your skin from UV rays. Fair-skinned people tend to have less melanin and so are more vulnerable to sunburns and sun damage.

Finally, and it’s not necessarily about your skin, but did you know that getting enough sunshine in your day helps you boost your serotonin levels? Serotonin is a chemical that helps with mood stabilization and reduces depression and anxiety. Specifically, when sunlight enters your eyes, it interacts with your retinas, which then send a signal to your brain to produce serotonin.

How Do You Get Sunburns?

Sunburns are a direct result of being exposed to sunlight for too long without protection. When your skin is exposed to sunlight, the UVA and UVB rays penetrate the layers of your skin and begin causing damage. As we mentioned before, a little sunlight is good, but too much and your skin will start to burn.

Make sure any time you go outside for longer than 15-30 minutes at a time that you plan to use sunscreen, sunblock, or protective clothing.

How Damaging Is The Sun To Your Skin?

Largely, it depends on how light or dark your skin is. The darker your skin, or the higher amount of melanin you have in your skin, the less damaging the sun will be. Conversely, the lighter your skin, the more damaging the sun will be.

How Long Does it Take for the Sun to Damage Your Skin?

  1. Fair-skinned: after 5-10 minutes. Skin Types I-II
  2. Light skinned people with blond or brown hair (skin type II), 20 minutes
  3. Skin Type 3: light or light brown skin, dark blond or brown hair, gray or brown eyes – 30 minutes
  4. Skin Type 4: light brown or olive skin and no freckles, dark brown hair, brown or dark brown eyes. Around 50 minutes.
  5. Skin Type 5: Dark brown skin. Dark brown or black hair. Dark brown eyes. 60 minutes.
  6. Skin Type 6: Dark brown or black skin. Black hair. Dark brown eyes. 60 minutes.
This information comes from The National Library of Medicine

Is Skin Cancer Really Caused By Exposure to the Sun?

Yes. Yes, it is. And not just prolonged exposure, but even just small exposures day to day and year over year add up. 

How Does The Sun Damage The Skin?

The UV rays from the sun are a form of radiation, and as they interact with the cells in your skin, they start changing your DNA. After years of sun exposure, these changes can cause mutations and possibly skin cancer. Because the sun affects everyone, this is why you should get consistent skin cancer screenings after you turn 50.

How to Spot Skin Cancer

Thankfully, skin cancer and precancerous moles have several easy-to-identify characteristics. A good way to remember is the ABCDEs of skin cancer.

  • Asymmetry: An irregularly shaped mole.
  • Borders: The borders/edges of the mole are uneven.
  • Color: The mole is multi-colored or changes in color (shades of brown, black, or tan; pink, red, white, or blue).
  • Diameter: The mole is larger in diameter than 6mm (about the width of a pencil eraser).
  • Evolving: The mole changes over time.
  • Firm: The mole is more firm than the surrounding tissue and doesn’t flatten when compressed.
  • Growth: The mole is progressively larger.

If you notice any of these signs, you should visit your doctor for a professional skin cancer screening.

How Do You Know if a Sun Spot is Cancerous?

Actinic lentigines, or sunspots, also known as age spots, or liver spots, are harmless patches of brown discoloration on your skin. These spots develop over time from sun exposure and do not become cancerous and therefore do not need treatment.

However, if you want to remove sunspots from your skin, there are several aesthetic treatments that our plastic surgeons offer at their aesthetic and plastic surgery clinics.

Who Is The Most Prone to Skin Cancer?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, before the age of 50, women generally have a higher risk of skin cancer than men. Conversely, after age 50, men have a higher rate of developing skin cancer.

With that said, perhaps the best way to answer this question is to describe what increases your risk of developing skin cancer.

Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

  • Exposure to UV light from natural or artificial sources
  • If you got any sunburns during childhood or adolescence you face a higher risk of developing skin cancer
  • A family history of skin cancer
  • Having a high number of moles
  • Having previous melanomas
  • Fair skin
  • Excessive exposure to the sun
  • Living in a sunny climate
  • Living in at a high altitude
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Coming in contact with carcinogenic substances

What Are The Symptoms Of Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer has several different types. Most of the time they have similar symptoms, which is why when you notice symptoms, you should visit a specialist who can give you a more accurate diagnosis.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Typically, these carcinomas appear on parts of your body that have been exposed to the sun consistently for many years. They tend to appear on the face, ears, neck, trunk, arms, and legs.

Symptoms of Basal cell carcinoma include:
  • Small lumps or bumps that appear smooth, pearly, or waxy.
  • Lesions that are discolored, scab over, bleed, heal, and return.
  • Flat scar-like lesions that are flesh-colored or brown.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

This type of carcinoma also appears in the most sun-exposed areas of your body. Typically, this type of cancer appears on the hands, face, or ears. Additionally, people who have darker skin are more likely to develop skin cancer on parts of their body not often exposed to sunlight.

Symptoms of Squamous cell carcinoma include:
  • A firm pink or red nodule on the skin.
  • A lesion that’s rough, itchy, scaly, or crusty.
  • Lesions may also bleed.


Melanoma is a highly dangerous form of skin cancer. It can develop on any part of the body, regardless of if it’s been exposed to sunlight. Melanoma most often develops on the lower legs for women, and on the trunk for men.

Symptoms of Melanoma include:
  • A bump or patch that’s brown with some smaller speckles.
  • A mole that changes color, size, shape, or texture.
  • A mole that might also bleed as well as change shape.
  • The mole may also be one color or multiple colors such as pink, red, white, blue-black, or blue.
  • An itchy lesion or burns.
  • Dark lesions or spots on the skin, under the fingernails, on the palms, on the soles of your feet, on your fingertips or toes, inside your mouth, or the mucous membranes of the nose, anus, or vagina.

Kaposi Sarcoma

This is a rare form of skin cancer and is most likely to occur in people with weakened immune systems. It mainly affects the blood vessels in the skin.

Symptoms of Kaposi Sarcoma include:
  • Odd colored patches of skin on the arms, neck, back, or face. Also possibly around the mouth, nose, throat, or other mucous membranes.
  • The patches of skin can be blue, black, pink, red, or purple.
  • Also, the patches can be flat or bumpy in texture.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

This carcinoma mainly affects the skin around the hair follicles. It may also form in the skin, around the hair follicles, but under the surface.

Symptoms of Merkel cell carcinoma include:
  • A discolored bump or lump on patches of your skin is often exposed to the sun.
  • Fast-growing lumps.
  • Lesions may also become open ulcers or sores.

Sebaceous Gland Carcinoma

This type of skin cancer is uncommon but aggressive. It forms in the oil glands of the skin or around the eyes.

Symptoms of Sebaceous Gland Carcinoma include:
  • A lump or bump that is round, firm, and painless
  • Usually forms inside either the upper or lower eyelid. Forms around here due to the high number of sebaceous glands.
  • Can be mistaken for other eye problems.

Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans (DFSP)

This type of skin cancer is very rare. DFSP starts in the dermis, or the middle layers of the skin, and grows very slowly.

Symptoms of DFSP include:
  • A bump that looks like a scar or a rough plaque raised from the surface of your skin.
  • The plaques or bumps are usually discolored and can be pink, red, brown, or purple.
  • In newborns and children, DFSP can look like a birthmark.

What Causes Skin Cancer?

Although there are genetic predisposing factors, ultraviolet radiation exposure is the primary contributing initiator of the disease. Only 70% of adults and 10% of teens declare the routine practice of sun protection behaviors. 

How Long Does Skin Cancer Take To Develop After A Sunburn?

If you get a sunburn before the age of 18, it’s likely that it will take 20 or more years before a skin cancer lesion actually develops. However, that is not a license to go outside and forget about protecting your skin from the sun. 

One reason that men over the age of 50 have a higher risk of skin cancer is due to poor sun protection habits. The most common spot on men’s skin where skin cancer develops is on their upper back and shoulders. Most likely due to poor sun protection, poor sunscreen use, or exposure to the sun while working outdoors.

Why Skin Cancer Is Dangerous

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. It’s been said that 1 in 5 Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70.

More than 9,500 people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer every day.

The Surgeon General has declared skin cancer a major public health problem. It is the most common type of cancer in the United States and its incidence is increasing by about 1% per year. 

Myths About The Sun and Your Skin

There are some misconceptions about tanning and skin cancer. A “base” tan is not a “safe” tan and indoor tanning is not safer than outdoor exposure. Prevention remains an integral part of management.

How To Protect Your Skin From The Sun

Protective behaviors include frequently seeking shade, wearing long sleeve shirts and pants, and darker colors when possible. Dry clothes are more protective than wet. Please note that a T-shirt alone without sunscreen may have an SPF of less than 15. It is important to have sunscreen with SPF greater than 15. One should apply to the face and body daily 30 minutes prior to going outside. Reapply every two hours during exposure.


How to Prevent Skin Cancer

Regularly check the skin for changes. Moles or defects of the skin that change or grow or wounds that do not heal are particularly worrisome. One should perform a thorough skin exam monthly and have a trained professional perform an exam yearly.

Visit With a General Surgeon in Nashville, TN for a Skin Cancer Screening

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