Ah, the sun. It’s warm and inviting, gives you energy, is an excellent source of vitamin D, boosts hormones that put you in a better mood and help you sleep, gives your skin a bronzed glow, and some scientists even think it can shrink fat cells!! 

Getting a daily dose of sunshine (especially first thing in the morning) certainly has perks, but it’s important to remember that the sun also has harmful UV rays that can cause more harm than good if you aren’t careful. 

Too much sun can lead to serious skin consequences beyond cosmetic concerns like wrinkles and sun spots. We’re talking about skin cancer, which, believe it or not, is the most common cancer in the United States.

If your skin has seen the sun (pretty sure that’s everyone) – this article is a must-read. We’ll examine the risks and rewards of sun exposure, how much sun is too much, and what you need to be aware of regarding skin cancer risk factors, signs, and symptoms.

Table of Contents

How the Sun Affects the Skin

​The sun often gets a bad rep. It’s true; sun exposure has adverse effects, and some can even be deadly. But sunlight also has many positive effects on the skin, body, and its important systems.

Before we deep dive into the negatives and how to moderate your sun exposure so you get all the pros and none of the cons– let’s start with the benefits of a bit of sun on your skin.

Positive Effects of the Sun

  • Vitamin D: There is a reason why vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin. 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, which is vital for healthy bone strength, mood, immunity, and more.

    Over 40% of American adults are estimated to have a vitamin D deficiency. When you are low on vitamin D, you might experience fatigue, trouble sleeping, depression, or even hair loss. Having healthy vitamin D levels is important, and sunshine is the best way to help your body produce more of it. However, you don’t need much time in the sun to reap the benefits. Fifteen minutes in the sun can provide all the vitamin D you need.

  • Melanin: Melanin is a pigment responsible for producing the pigmentation in our skin (as well as our eyes and hair.) Melanin levels are primarily decided by genetics, but sun exposure can also increase melanin production. Having melanin is a good thing. It plays an essential role in keeping our skin healthy and protected from the harmful effects of UV light. For example, fair-skinned people tend to have less melanin which is why they are more vulnerable to sunburns and sun damage. Additionally, melanin acts as an antioxidant, which means it can help prevent damage to our skin cells caused by harmful molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) produced when exposed to UV light.
  • Enhances Mood –  This sun perk has nothing to do with your skin but is worth mentioning because it’s one of the most significant benefits of sunlight. Getting enough sunshine in your day helps boost two important mood-regulating hormones– dopamine and serotonin. 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, sending a signal to your brain to produce serotonin. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in the brain’s reward system and is associated with feelings of pleasure and motivation. As mentioned above, when we are exposed to sunlight, our skin produces vitamin D, which is known to help regulate dopamine levels in the brain. In addition, sunlight exposure can also stimulate the release of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that can increase dopamine levels and contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness
  • Improves Sleep –  This also has nothing to do with your skin but is worth mentioning. Studies show that exposure to sunlight shortly after waking helps enhance sleep quality at night. Exposure to sunlight in the morning can be a natural and effective way to improve your sleep habits and overall health. This is because sunlight helps reset your body’s internal “sleep clock” by regulating our circadian rhythm or internal 24-hour clock. Morning light is particularly important, as it is the most crucial element in setting our circadian clock. By consistently exposing ourselves to sunlight in the morning at the same time each day, we can help regulate our internal clock and increase our readiness to fall asleep at night.
    This only scratches the surface of the benefits of sunshine. A daily dose of sun is also known to relieve pain, assist in wound healing, kill bacteria, boost the immune system, and even encourage weight management. There are plenty of benefits of sunshine. However, too much sunlight comes with its own set of health risks. Here is a list of potential cons if you overexpose yourself to too much sun.

Negative Effects of the Sun

  • Short-Term Skin Damage: Spending only a few minutes in peak sun can lead to sunburn if you aren’t wearing SPF, especially if you have fair skin. Still, even if you have dark skin, overexposure to UV rays can lead to a sunburn. Often, sunburns are accompanied by pain and blistering and can even cause fever or second-degree burns if severe enough. We will talk more about how long it takes to get a sunburn baked on skin types a little further down.
  • Long-Term Skin Damage: Exposure to UV rays over time accelerates the aging of your skin, causing premature aging like wrinkles, dryness, sagging, and pigment changes.

    This happens because exposure to UV light causes damage to the collagen and elastic tissue in our skin, making it more fragile and less likely to retain its shape, ultimately resulting in wrinkles and sagging skin. Additionally, UV light exposure can cause white and dark spots on the skin by damaging the surface cells.

    According to experts, UV light exposure is one of the main contributors to skin aging and wrinkling, with cigarette smoking being the only factor considered worse.

  • Skin Cancer: Changes in the skin cells caused by prolonged sun exposure can lead to skin cancer, the most common of all cancers. In fact, it only takes getting a sunburn 5 times in you to increase your chances of developing a very dangerous form of skin cancer (melanoma) by 80 percent.

    Melanoma is only one form of skin cancer that can develop from overexposure to the sun. We will dive deep into other types of cancers, their symptoms, and other risk factors that increase your chance of skin cancer a little further down.

  • Rash and Hives: The sun can stimulate numerous types of skin reactions. Too much time in the sun can result in something as simple as a heat rash, which usually occurs in places that are covered up from the sun, to something more uncomfortable such as welts and hives from sun poisoning.
  • Heat Exhaustion or Heat stroke: When combined with dehydration, prolonged exposure to extreme heat causes the body’s temperature control system to fail, resulting in heat exhaustion. If heat exhaustion is ignored, it can lead to a heat stroke, which is a serious heat-related illness that can be life-threatening.
  • Damage to the Eyes: Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun can cause long-term damage to the back of the retina and lead to bumps along the edge of the cornea that can obstruct clear vision. UV light is also known to be a contributing factor in the development of cataracts.

Moderation and protection are the keys to getting all the pros of sunlight without any cons. Everyone needs at least 15 minutes of exposure to the sun daily to maintain optimal vitamin D levels. However, any exposure after that increases your chances of overexposure, which could lead to sunburn and skin cancer.

How Do You Get Sunburns?

Sunburns directly result from exposure 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, a little sunlight is good, but too much and your skin will start to burn.

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

Additionally, try to get your daily dose of sun early in the morning and closer to sunset. The sun’s rays are typically strongest between 10am and 4pm. You should limit exposure to the sun during these peak hours year-round. 

How Damaging Is The Sun To Your Skin?

Skin experts refer to the damage the sun does to the skin by several names, including photoaging, photodamage, solar damage, or sun damage. Whatever you want to call it, everyone is susceptible to the sun damaging their skin. Yes, even people of color. 

How damaging the sun can be to your skin largely depends on how light or dark your skin is. The darker your skin, or the more 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.

Other factors that include how damaging the sun is to your skin include:

  • Having a history of skin cancer or having a family history of skin cancer.
  • Live in or frequent high altitudes.
  • Have blue or green colored eyes or red, blond, or light brown hair.
  • Have a lot of moles on your body.
  • Spend a lot of time outdoors and/or at tanning salons.
  • Have a weakened immune system due to an autoimmune disease or organ transplant.
  • Take medicines that make your skin sensitive to sunlight or weaken your immunity.

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

Sun damage varies not only based on your skin color but also on how long you soak in the sun, what time of the day it is, and even your geographical location. You should always check the UV Index where you are located before going out into the sun. The higher the UV Index reading, the higher the radiation levels, and the more likely you are to damage your skin.

For example, the sun’s most damaging rays are almost always stronger during mid-day. Additionally, UV radiation is particularly high in places like Florida, where you are close to the equator. UVB exposure tends to also be more of a problem in mountainous regions, as the snow, water, and light sand in these regions reflect UV light and increase your exposure.

That said, The National Library of Medicine provides a general guideline of how many minutes it takes for the sun to potentially damage your skin based on skin type. First, you will need to use the information below to determine your skin type.

 

Skin Type 1

Very light skin, often with freckles, reddish or strawberry blond hair, and blue or gray eyes.

 

Skin Type II

Light skin, often with freckles, blond or brown hair, all eye colors.

 

Skin Type III

Light or light brown skin, rarely with freckles, dark blond or brown hair, and gray or brown eyes.

 

Skin Type IV

Light brown or olive-colored skin, no freckles, dark brown hair, brown or dark brown eyes.

 

Skin Type V

Dark brown skin, dark brown or black hair, dark brown eyes.

 

Skin Type VI

Dark brown or black skin, black hair, dark brown eyes

 

Once you’ve determined your skin type, you can use the information below to determine the maximum amount of time you can expose untanned and unprotected skin to the sun daily without sunburn.

 

Skin Type Maximum amount of time
I 5-10 minutes
II 20 minutes
III 30 minutes
IV 50 minutes
V More than 60 minutes
VI More than 60 minutes

 

Again, this is only a general guideline that does not consider location or UV index. Additionally, these max times are based on skin that is not covered or does not have SPF protection. 

Is Skin Cancer Really Caused By Exposure to the Sun?

Yes, it is. In fact, it is estimated that more than 90% of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure. This includes “fake sun” from tanning beds.

UV radiation in any form harms the DNA in our skin cells. When the DNA is damaged, it can cause the cells to grow out of control over time, potentially leading to skin cancer. Think of DNA as an instruction manual telling our cells what to do. 

And it doesn’t take prolonged exposure to the sun to cause this DNA damage to occur. Even limited exposure day to day and year over year can add up.

How Does The Sun Damage The Skin?

The sun emits ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is composed of two types of rays, UVA and UVB. These rays can penetrate the skin and affect the DNA in our skin cells. When UV rays come into contact with our skin, they trigger a series of chemical reactions that cause damage to our skin cells’ DNA. Over time, the cumulative effects of these DNA changes can lead to the development of mutations, eventually leading to skin cancer.

The damage caused by the sun can manifest in a variety of ways, such as sunburn, premature aging, wrinkles, and age spots. Furthermore, excessive sun exposure can weaken the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to repair the damage caused by UV rays. 

Protecting your skin from the sun by wearing protective clothing, using sunscreen, and seeking shade during peak UV hours can help reduce the risk of sun damage and skin cancer. But the best thing you can do to prevent skin cancer is to get regular skin cancer screenings. 

The sun affects everyone regardless of gender and skin tone. You should get consistent skin cancer screenings after you turn 50 and much sooner and possibly more frequently if you are at a higher risk for skin damage or skin cancer. 

How to Spot Skin Cancer

Skin cancer and precancerous moles are often characterized by several visible features. The ABCDEs of skin cancer is an easy-to-remember method for identifying concerning moles. 

  • 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.

Additionally, check to see if the mole is firmer than the surrounding tissue and does not flatten when compressed and if the mole is progressively getting larger.

Remembering these characteristics can help you identify potential skin cancer early on and seek professional help. If you notice any of these signs, you should schedule an appointment to visit a skin specialist for a professional skin cancer screening.

How Do You Know if a Sun Spot is Cancerous?

​Actinic lentigines, commonly known as sunspots, are typically harmless and do not pose a risk of developing into skin cancer. These spots result from excessive sun exposure and are usually seen in older adults.

Sunspots usually appear as small, flat, or slightly raised patches of discolored skin, often ranging from tan to dark brown in color, and are typically found on the areas of the body that are most exposed to the sun, such as the face, hands, shoulders, and arms.

While sunspots are not cancerous, it is crucial to keep an eye on any changes in their appearance, as skin cancer can often resemble a sunspot. If a sunspot begins to grow, change in color or texture, or starts to bleed, it is essential to see a dermatologist to rule out the possibility of skin cancer. This is particularly true if you have a family history of skin cancer or a history of frequent sunburns or intense sun exposure.

If you are interested in removing sunspots for cosmetic reasons, there are several options available 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 age 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. Below are some of the most common risk factors for skin cancer, regardless of gender or age.

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. That said, here is a breakdown of the most common types of skin cancer and the symptoms most associated with each type.

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, darker skin people 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

Melanoma is a highly dangerous form of skin cancer. It can develop on any part of the body, regardless of exposure 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 and can appear 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 skin’s oil glands or around the eyes and can be mistaken for other eye problems.

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.

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 predisposing genetic factors, ultraviolet radiation exposure is the primary contributing initiator of the disease. UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds can damage the DNA in our skin cells, leading to mutations that can cause skin cancer.

Unfortunately, many people do not practice adequate sun protection behaviors. According to studies, only 70% of adults and 10% of teens report routine sun protection measures such as wearing protective clothing, seeking shade, and applying sunscreen.

This lack of sun protection can increase the risk of developing skin cancer. Therefore, protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays is essential by practicing sun safety measures daily.

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

​If you get a sunburn before the age of 18, it can take 20 or more years after a sunburn before a skin cancer lesion actually develops. That is precisely why taking care of your skin from infancy and beyond is so important.

However, it’s important to note that this time frame is not an excuse to neglect sun protection. Sunburns can still be painful and damaging to the skin, and repeated exposure to the sun without protection can increase the risk of skin cancer at any age. In fact, 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 their upper back and shoulders. Most likely due to poor sun protection, poor sunscreen use, or exposure to the sun while working outdoors.

Everyone needs to be proactive about sun protection to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer. Sun protection measures, such as wearing protective clothing, using sunscreen, and seeking shade during peak sun hours, are crucial in preventing skin cancer. Regular check-ups with a dermatologist or healthcare provider can also help detect any early signs of skin cancer.

Why Skin Cancer Is Dangerous

Skin cancer is dangerous because it can be deadly if not detected and treated early. In fact, it is the most common type of cancer in the United States, with about 1 in 5 Americans being diagnosed before age 70.

More than 9,500 people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. In addition, the Surgeon General has declared skin cancer a major public health problem due to its increasing incidence, which is currently rising by about 1% per year.

Although most skin cancers are curable when detected early, these statistics demonstrate how prevalent and serious skin cancer can be. Advanced cases can spread to other parts of the body and become much more challenging to treat. This is why it’s essential to take precautions to protect your skin from the sun and to regularly examine it for any changes or signs of skin cancer. Early detection is key to successful treatment and better outcomes for those affected by skin cancer.

Myths About The Sun and Your Skin

​There are many myths about tanning and skin cancer that can be dangerous to believe. One of the most common is the belief that a “base” tan provides protection against sun damage. In reality, any change in skin color indicates damage to the skin, and a base tan offers only minimal protection against further damage.

Another myth is that indoor tanning is safer than outdoor sun exposure. However, both indoor and outdoor tanning increases the risk of skin cancer, and indoor tanning can actually be more dangerous due to concentrated exposure to UV radiation.

Additionally, some people believe they don’t need sunscreen on cloudy days. Still, even on overcast days, up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays can penetrate through the clouds and cause damage to the skin.

It’s important to be aware of these myths and to take proactive steps to protect your skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation.

How To Protect Your Skin From The Sun

Sun protection is crucial in preventing skin cancer. To protect your skin from the sun, it’s important to take proactive measures such as frequently seeking shade, wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants, and choosing darker colors when possible. It’s also important to note that dry clothing is more protective than wet clothing.

Also, keep in mind that a T-shirt alone without sunscreen on your skin may have an SPF of less than 15, so always use sunscreen with an SPF greater than 15 and apply it to your face and body daily, 30 minutes before going outside– even if you are covered. Additionally, sunscreen isn’t one-and-done. It’s crucial to reapply every two hours during sun exposure.

It’s also important to remember that the sun is also dangerous in the winter or when it’s cloudy, so even on overcast days, take these protective measures to prevent long-term damage to your skin.

 

How to Prevent Skin Cancer

​Preventing skin cancer involves being vigilant about changes in the skin and taking action if any abnormalities are found. Regularly checking the skin for changes is vital. Pay attention to moles and defects of the skin that change or grow or wounds that do not heal. These are particularly problematic and should be checked by a dermatologist or healthcare provider as soon as possible. It’s also essential to perform a thorough skin exam monthly and have a trained professional perform an exam yearly.

In addition to monitoring the skin, there are several preventive measures that individuals can take. These include seeking shade during peak sun hours, wearing protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats, using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, and avoiding indoor tanning.

It’s important to note that these measures should be taken year-round, as the sun’s harmful rays can penetrate through clouds and cause damage even in the winter months. By being proactive and taking steps to protect your skin, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.

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

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