Summer is filled with all sorts of outside and water-centered activities which bring about a health concern that can sometimes be overlooked: Sun Damage. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, only half of Americans protect themselves properly from the sun. Sunburns, premature aging of the skin, and the serious consequence of skin cancer can occur when the skin is exposed unprotected to ultraviolet light. While the sun is the most powerful and damaging source of UV light, tanning beds are another source which can result in skin damage. UV rays are present year-round, but the risk is much higher when rays are concentrated from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon. Much of this exposure occurs as children play outside and unfortunately, this is the least protected and most common cause of sun-related skin damage.
Sunburns can range from redness of the skin to blisters, swelling, and pain. Severe burns can result in fever, nausea, weakness, and confusion and may require urgent medical attention. Mild burns can be treated at home with a cool bath, application of a gentle, scent-free moisturizer with soothing agents such as aloe and the use of Tylenol or Motrin for discomfort. Never apply topical antibiotic, numbing, or steroid ointments unless directed by a physician. Widespread blistering or symptoms of fever and confusion should be evaluated immediately by a physician. Additional sun exposure should be avoided until the sunburn has healed. As the skin heals, there may be dryness, itchiness, and peeling and a topical moisturizer should be used. Application of anti-itch medications is not recommended as it can result in increased itching and skin damage. Prevention is the best cure for sunburn and its damaging effects!
PREMATURE SKIN AGING
Did you know that blue light emitted from your smartphone, computer monitor, and television screens adds to the damage caused by the sun? Indirect sun exposure through home and car windows, while not a usual cause of sunburn, also contributes to the effects of premature skin aging. This aging accelerates the loss of collagen, which gives young skin its shape and elastin, which gives skin’s tautness and elasticity. Also, prematurely aged skin loses proteins such as hyaluronic acid that help the skin retain moisture resulting in firmness, softness, and fullness. This loss results in fine lines and wrinkles as well as the appearance of dryness and sagging of the skin. Damaging UV light exposure also results in abnormal pigmentations such as sunspots. Protection is key; you may need to seek medical-grade skin care products to combat the premature aging process of the skin.
The most severe consequence of UV light skin damage is skin cancer. It is the most commonly occurring cancer in the United States, occurring in one out of every five Americans. Unprotected sun exposure is the single most common and preventable risk factor for skin cancer. According to board-certified dermatologist Mark D. Kaufmann, MD, FAAD, president of the American Academy of Dermatology: “If you are getting a tan, you are definitely not doing a good job of protecting yourself from the sun. There is no such thing as a safe tan. Every time you tan or burn, you are also damaging the DNA in your skin.”
There are three main types of skin cancer associated with UV light-related damage: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common and generally detected early as precancerous lesions appearing as scaly patches of skin in sun-exposed areas. When detected early, the lesions can be treated topically with by freezing or applying topical agents to stop progression to cancerous lesions. When cancerous progression does develop, topical chemotherapy agents are the most common treatment.
Basal cell carcinoma commonly appears as a shiny, palpable bump on sun-exposed skin. The bump will often appear translucent, pearly white (fair complexion) or glossy black (pigmented complexion) and usually is a slow-growing lesion. Basal cell carcinomas should be evaluated and removed by a dermatologist to prevent invasion of surrounding skin.
Finally, the most dangerous is melanoma. An estimated one million Americans are living with melanoma and twenty of those individuals die every day from metastatic melanoma. Melanoma usually begins as a skin lesion. Risk factors for lesions that should prompt evaluation include: (A) asymmetry—part of the lesion is different than the other, (B) border—irregular or poorly defined borders, (C) color—varying colors in the lesion, (D) diameter—lesions larger than a pencil eraser, and (E) evolving—the lesion changes size, color, or shape. Any of these factors should result in evaluation by your physician and a referral to a dermatologist.
Prevention is focused on reducing the amount of exposure. The sun and tanning beds are the most concentrated forms of UV light and tanning beds should be strictly avoided! Sun exposure can be reduced by seeking shade. Using a sun umbrella or canopy with a sun protection factor of 50+ is recommended. Wearing lightweight, long-sleeve protective clothing with SPF of 50+ with wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses during periods of sun exposure is helpful. Finally, sunscreen with an SPF of 30+ should be applied to exposed skin daily. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours when directly exposed to the sun, especially when swimming and sweating—reapply immediately after water activities. Everyday use of an SPF 30+ sunscreen will help to protect against premature aging of the skin. Remember, when it comes to protecting your skin from painful sunburn, unsightly premature aging, and dangerous skin cancer, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure!
Kendall Wagner, M.D. is a regular healthcare contributor to Do South® Magazine.
Chaffee Crossing Clinic
11300 Roberts Boulevard, Fort Smith, Arkansas