Advance with MUSC Health

Aging Skin & Sun Safety

Joseph Gerald (Jerry) Reves, M.D.
June 25, 2020
A smiling woman wearing a hat and sunglasses in Summer time at the beach

The lifting of COVID restrictions and the lure of summer travel are beckoning us to beaches, trails and urban destinations far and near.

And whether you’re taking a suitcase, your backpack or a shopping bag, don’t forget to include the sunscreen.

While we all want to see COVID in our rearview mirror and to feel safe savoring the summer sun and fresh air, remember that too much exposure to sun can pose a threat to our health any day of the year. At the very least, it’s one of the most visible signs of aging.

Photoaging is the result of sun exposure and produces skin changes similar to chronological aging. In addition to thinner, drier and discolored skin, we might notice pesky wrinkles, mottled pigmentation, actinic lentigines or “age spots,” and lesions, called seborrheic keratosis.

The biggest threat from increased sun exposure is skin cancer. Almost 9,500 people in the United States are diagnosed each day with skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Basal cell is the most common skin cancer, followed by squamous cell carcinoma. These two, also called non-melanoma, are easily cured if detected early and represent 95% of skin cancers.

Melanoma is the more invasive skin cancer and can be fatal. According to the American Cancer Society, 106,100 men and women will be diagnosed with invasive melanoma this year. Melanoma accounts for about 1% of all skin cancers diagnosed in the United States, but it causes most of the deaths from skin cancer.

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning booths is the main cause of skin cancer. Ultra-violet rays consist of UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays cause sunburn and play a key role in skin cancer. UVA rays cause skin damage that leads to tanning as well as skin aging and wrinkles. A sunscreen's SPF number refers mainly to the amount of UVB protection it provides. Note that broad-spectrum sunscreen works against both types.

Limiting exposure to UV light is not that straight-forward. Sun protection must begin early in life. Someone who has had five or more blistering sunburns between ages 15 and 20 has a 68% chance of getting surface skin cancer and an 80% chance of developing melanoma.

Remember that sand, water and even snow are highly reflective, and any skin not covered in these settings is being exposed to the reflected UV rays.

Be mindful of this when sitting under an umbrella on the beach. And just because it’s cloudy, don’t think you’re safe. UV light penetrates clouds, exposing people to rays from above.

Obviously, we can’t have a do-over of our first 20 years, and it may be impossible – even undesirable – to avoid sun during the peak sun hours all the time, but the science shows that we must be mindful of exposure to the sun and prevent unnecessary exposure to UV light.

Here’s how:

  1. Avoid sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  2. Wear long pants, long sleeves, preferably brightly colored clothing that is reflective, and a wide-brimmed hat when out in the sun.
  3. Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.

The higher the SPF number, the more protection sunscreen offers, so pay attention to the sunscreen label.

Reapply according to directions and always after swimming or perspiring when working or engaging in physical activity. Water resistant means that the sunscreen is protective up to 40 minutes while swimming or sweating. Very water resistant means the protection lasts up to 80 minutes. These descriptions will be on the label of the sunscreen.

The sunscreens use chemicals to cause the protection. There are two classes of chemical protection, organic and inorganic.

The organic compounds absorb the UV light and actually create slight heat in doing so. Inorganic compounds use elements such as titanium or zinc to reflect the UV light and tend to be less irritating to the skin.

Recent news stories about sunscreens that include the carcinogen benzene have raised questions about the safety of sunscreens. Not all products contain benzene. Bottom line: Safe sunscreens should be used until further testing validates the initial study. Benzene and its cancer-causing properties have been linked to chronic inhalation or ingestion, but the data on its effects on skin are very limited.

Finally, sunscreens come as creams, lotions, and sprays and must be used to cover every inch of your skin that is exposed to the sun. Most adults need about 1 ounce. Don’t forget ears, hands and tops of feet! And apply 10 to 15 minutes before going outside.

Remember: A hat, protective clothing and lathering up with sunscreen may seem like a lot of trouble, but an ounce of protection will avoid a pound of cure at the dermatologic surgeon’s office.

About the Author

Joseph Gerald (Jerry) Reves, M.D.

Keywords: Cancer, Healthy Aging, Dermatology