Effects of Early Sun Exposure
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Everyone who goes outside is exposed to the sun. It is important to know the effects of sun exposure.
What is sun exposure?
The sun gives off rays of light that can help and harm us. These are known as ultraviolet (UV) rays. There are three different types of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC.
UVA rays are the most common form of sun exposure. UVB rays make up less sun exposure but are more intense. UVC rays are the worst. Luckily, we are not at risk of UVC rays. The earth’s ozone layer blocks these rays.
Even though you can’t see UV rays, they can go through your skin. The outer layer of skin is the epidermis. The inner layer is called the dermis. Your nerves and blood vessels are located in the dermis. Epidermis cells contain a pigment (or dye) called melanin. People with light skin have less melanin than dark-skinned people. This is why very fair-skinned people burn easier.
Melanin protects our skin and also creates vitamin D. When your body defends itself against UV rays, your skin tans or darkens. Too much sun exposure allows UV rays to reach your inner skin layers. You know this as sunburn. This can cause skin cells to die, damage, or develop cancer. Signs of sunburn include:
- Your skin will turn red due to an increase in blood flow. It can happen right away or over time. You might not know you are burnt until you go back inside.
- Hot skin. You also can get goose bumps or chills.
- Itchy or tight skin.
- This is your body’s way of shedding the dead cells.
Why is sun exposure important?
There are benefits and risks of sun exposure.
A small amount of UV rays is good for us. It creates vitamin D, which absorbs calcium. Your body needs calcium to build and maintain healthy bones. You also can get vitamin D from certain types of food. If you have low vitamin D, your healthcare provider might suggest taking a supplement.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), UV rays can help treat some health conditions. Healthcare providers might order it for people who have eczema, psoriasis, rickets, or jaundice. UV rays also can be used to disinfect or sterilize.
Too much sun exposure can be harmful. It can lead to:
- Skin changes. Some skin cells with melanin can form a clump. This creates freckles and moles. Over time, these can develop cancer.
- Early aging. Time spent in the sun makes your skin age faster than normal. Signs of this are wrinkled, tight, or leathery skin and dark spots.
- Lowered immune system. White blood cells work to protect your body. When your skin gets burnt, white blood cells help create new cells. Doing this can put your immune system at risk in other areas.
- Eye injuries. UV rays can damage the tissue in your eyes. They can burn your outer layer called the cornea. They also can blur your vision. Over time, you can develop cataracts. This can cause blindness if left untreated.
- Skin cancer. Most skin cancer is not melanoma. It is very common, but also very treatable. Melanoma skin cancer is not as common but is more severe. Skin cancer can spread to other areas in your body, especially if left untreated.
Everyone is at risk of the effects of sun exposure. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what color your skin is. Your risk increases based on the length and depth of exposure. You are at greater risk if you have fair skin or moles. Family history of skin cancer also is a factor. People who work in the sun all day are at greater risk as well. Farmers, construction workers, and fishermen need extra protection.
Path to improved health
You can prevent the harmful effects of sun exposure. Get to know your body and how it reacts to sun.
The Government of Canada offers these tips for protecting yourself from the sun:
- Cover up. When the UV Index is 3 or higher, protect your skin as much as possible. Wear light-coloured, long-sleeved shirts, pants, and a wide-brimmed hat made from breathable fabric. When you buy sunglasses, make sure they provide protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
- Limit your time in the sun. Keep out of the sun and heat between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The UV index in Canada can be 3 or higher during those times. When your shadow is shorter than you, the sun is very strong. Look for places with lots of shade, like a park with big trees, partial roofs, awnings, umbrellas or gazebo tents. Always take an umbrella to the beach
- Use the UV Index forecast. Tune in to local radio and TV stations or check online for the UV index forecast in your area. When the UV index is 3 or higher, wear protective clothing, sunglasses, and sunscreen, even when it’s cloudy.
- Use sunscreen. Put sunscreen on when the UV index is 3 or higher. Use sunscreen labelled “broad spectrum” and “water resistant” with an SPF of at least 30.
- Drink plenty of cool liquids (especially water) before you feel thirsty. If sunny days are also hot and humid, stay cool and hydrated to avoid heat illness. Dehydration (not having enough fluids in your body) is dangerous, and thirst is not a good indicator of dehydration.
There are other factors to keep in mind in regard to sun exposure. Some medicines can make you more sensitive to the sun and its UV rays. These include antibiotics and birth control pills. Check with your healthcare provider or the pharmacy for side effects.
UV rays reflect off certain surfaces, such as water, concrete, sand, and snow. You are more at risk in these areas. This means you can get sunburned while skiing. You also can get sunburned when it is cloudy outside.
You should never use tanning beds. Even though the light doesn’t come from the sun, doesn’t mean it’s safe. Tanning beds and sun lamps have high amounts of UV rays. You also should avoid using products that help you tan. Oils, lotions, and pills claim to produce more melanin and darken your skin faster.
Things to consider
There are safer ways to get a tan. You can use sunless self-tanners. Lotions, sprays, and tinted makeup provide color without risk of damage. You also can get an airbrush tan. It has become more common for salons to offer this service. Unlike the sun, though, “fake tans” do not create melanin. You still need to use sunscreen and other means of protection when you are exposed to the sun.
Ask your healthcare provider if you should get regular screenings to look for early signs of cancer. These can help detect early signs of skin cancer. You also can check for new or changing skin spots at home. Contact your healthcare provider if you notice anything unusual. This includes a spot that hurts, itches, or has changed color or shape.
Your healthcare provider may perform an exam to look at your skin. They might need to remove part or all of the spot to take a biopsy. This will show if the spot contains cancer or not. Your doctor will work with you on treatment if they find cancer
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Government of Canada Website