By now, we’ve all heard the litany of problems too much sun exposure can cause – sunburn, skin cancer, and even premature aging. But how is it that one natural resource can have such a negative impact, and why doesn’t unnatural light (from lamps and light bulbs) have the same effect? Today, our board-certified dermatologists and physician assistants at Dermatology Associates of Atlanta (DAA) are breaking down the process to show you the science behind sun damage.
How does sun exposure cause skin cancer?
Too much sunlight damages the skin because it produces ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The radiation can cause noticeable damage in the form of sunburn, but over time, it can also damage the DNA in your skin cells, which leads to skin cancer. The radiation adds up over time, so even small amounts of sun exposure here and there can lead to skin cancer (regardless of whether or not you get sunburn or other signs of damage).
How does sun exposure cause age spots?
Contrary to popular belief, age spots (dark spots on the skin, sometimes called “liver spots”) are not actually part of aging – they are the result of sun damage. The skin contains many different types of cells, and the cells that create pigment are called melanocytes. When your body detects too much sun exposure, your melanocytes produce extra pigment in order to protect the deeper layers of your skin. Over time, this excess pigment can accumulate in patches, forming age spots.
How does sun exposure cause fine lines and wrinkles?
Unfortunately, when it comes to aging, the sun delivers punches from two different angles. On top of creating age spots, UV radiation also breaks down collagen and elastin – two components of the skin which give the skin firmness, smoothness, and a more youthful appearance. While your skin does have less and less collagen and elastin as you age, sun exposure causes these proteins to break down faster than they naturally would, so wrinkles and skin laxity develop more severely and at an earlier age.
But isn’t it good to have some sun exposure?
Yes, the sun does have some positive impact. It allows your body to produce the Vitamin D it needs, and it can even help to control some skin conditions, like acne. However, the amount of sun exposure your body needs is rather minimal, and most people get more than enough sun every day simply from windows and walking to and from their vehicles. This is especially true for people with lighter skin, because the lighter your skin color, the more sunlight your body takes in.
At the end of the day, the #1 rule for giving your skin the right balance of sunlight and sun protection is to get advice from a board-certified dermatologist who knows your skin and your risk factors. Remember, there is no sunscreen which can block 100% of UV rays, but you can minimize your exposure (without worrying about getting too little sun) by wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher every day on any exposed skin, as well as wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sun-protective clothing when you’ll be spending time in the sun. To discuss how to repair the signs of previous sun damage and make your skin healthier and brighter, schedule a consultation at Dermatology Associates of Atlanta. Or, for more health and skincare tips, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.