The risks of too much sun exposure and what you can do to help prevent skin cancers.
Why can too much sun exposure be detrimental to your health?
Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun can stimulate vitamin D production in the skin. Having little or no sun exposure may put a person at risk for low vitamin D levels. However, the skin can produce only a limited amount of vitamin D at one time.
Unfortunately, UV rays can also damage skin cells. In the short term, this damage can cause sunburn. Chronic UV damage adds up, leading to skin texture changes.
Over time, too much UV exposure from the sun or artificial sources, like tanning beds or sun lamps, can contribute to the development of skin cancer. Continued time in the sun can further increase skin cancer risk.
What is skin cancer?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States.
The skin is the body’s largest organ. It has several layers, but the two main layers are the epidermis (upper or outer layer) and the dermis (lower or inner layer). Skin cancer begins in the epidermis, which comprises three kinds of cells.
- Squamous cells: Thin, flat cells that form the top layer of the epidermis.
- Basal cells: Round cells found in the middle layer of the skin under the squamous cells.
- Melanocytes: Cells that make melanin are found in the epidermis’s lower (innermost) part. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more pigment and cause the skin to darken or tan.
Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are the two most common types of skin cancer. They begin in the basal and squamous (outermost) layers of the skin, respectively.
Both cancers are often curable if found early and treated correctly. However, they can be disfiguring and spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.
Melanoma, the third most common type of skin cancer, begins in the melanocytes. Melanoma causes the most deaths because it is typically more invasive and can spread to other parts of the body, including vital organs.
How can we practice sun safety?
The most critical factor in managing your health and sun exposure is to be aware of and moderate your potential UV exposure.
The UV Index forecasts the strength of UV rays each day. If the UV index is 3 or higher in your area, protect your skin from too much exposure to the sun.
Additionally, the CDC recommends several ways to protect your skin during these periods:
- Stay in the shade.
- Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs.
- Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade your face, head, ears, and neck.
- Wear sunglasses with UV protection to protect your eyes.
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Re-apply often if you are sweating or exposed to water or the sun for extended periods.
The delicate skin of young children and seniors can be especially susceptible to UV effects. A variety of medications, including certain antibiotics, diuretics, and cholesterol medicines, can also cause sun sensitivity.
Protection from UV rays is essential all year, not just during the summer. UV rays can also damage your skin on cloudy and cool days. Moreover, they reflect off surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow.
When should you see a healthcare professional concerning your skin?
Contrary to popular media images, a tan does not indicate good health. Any skin color or texture change after UV exposure (including a tan or burn) is a sign of injury, not health.
It's always recommended to consult with a healthcare professional if you notice any suspicious skin changes, such as new moles, changes in existing moles, or any other abnormalities on your skin.
During your annual check-up, you may want to request a skin exam. This simple review of your overall skin health could prove beneficial for finding and treating potential skin lesions and other conditions early.
Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can reduce the potential dangers associated with skin cancer.
The Moultrie County Health Department encourages everyone to lower their skin cancer risk and make sun protection an everyday habit.