There is no denying that the sun feels good on our skin. When we spending our time outdoors, it simply lifts our spirits while giving us a sunkissed glow.
More often than not, we just can’t seem to stop being in the sun. But… there’s a risk in neglecting the dangers that come with it.
We often justify the amount of time we spend in the sun by reviewing all the positive things we’ve read it can do for us, like raising our vitamin D levels and mood.
We tell ourselves that surely anything that helps ease an inflammatory condition or improves a chronic skin condition must be good for us.
But this is exactly the problem.
Although the sun does offer some benefits, our skin usually pays a high price from the exposure needed to achieve those benefits.
Regardless of skin type, for people growing up in Australia, the risks associated with sun exposure are staggering.
The Cancer Council Australia reports that approximately 2 in 3 people will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70.
In fact, the most serious type of skin cancer — melanoma — is the 3rd most common cancer in the country.
Avoidable Skin Damages Due to Sun Exposure
Small amounts of ultraviolet (UV) radiation are required for our bodies to properly produce vitamin D, which keeps our bones and muscles strong.
That said, our skin begins to burn from as little as 15 minutes of exposure to our harsh summer sun. In fact, back in 2009, the World Health Organisation (WHO) categorised the entire ultraviolet spectrum as carcinogenic, putting them in the same class as tobacco and asbestos.
Here are two harmful outcomes we know are caused by prolonged exposure to the sun:
1. Premature Ageing
It’s easy to wonder if the best way to teach young Australians the value of sunscreen is to put billboards up along the highway featuring photos of people who never used sun protection at all. Simply put, they have aged at an alarming rate. The Sydney Morning Herald goes so far as to say that Aussie women age up to 20 years faster than their counterparts in Europe and America. That means that wrinkles, loss of volume, and sagging skin all show up a little earlier on our faces and bodies.
Therefore, what we perceive as a normal part of ageing could be the effects of the sun’s UV rays on the fibres (elastin) in the skin. When these fibres get damaged, the skin loses elasticity and strength. And the effect? The skin stretches, tears, and bruises more easily.
A study by dermatologists at Monash University found that Australian women — in spite of becoming more faithful to sunscreen and hats — tend to have fair skin to begin with and spend a tremendous amount of time in the sun as kids. By the time we learned the importance of protecting our skin, a fair amount of damage had already been done.
2. Cell Damage
It helps to understand that there are three different types of UV radiation: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC rays are filtered by the ozone. However, 10% of UVB and 95% of UVA reach the surface of the earth (and our skin).
These harmful UV radiations have different effects on the skin.
3. UVA Radiation
UVA penetrates the skin deeper than UVB. It causes long-term ageing and skin dehydration, leading to wrinkles, rough patches, and sagging.
Because UVA causes the skin to burn, the DNA within skin cells becomes damaged then if not repaired, the cells can mutate and become cancerous.
UVA has high penetration, passing through clouds and glass and therefore it is more difficult to protect against. Even if the temperature outside is cool, UVA still causes damage as it is highly concentrated when it’s overcast.
Exposure to UVA in sunbeds is more intense than natural sunlight; research shows that just one sunbed experience in your youth increases the lifetime risk of melanoma by 75%.
4. UVB Radiation
UVB is known as the burning ray as it causes the skin to burn. Strength and severity of the rays can vary depending on the time of day. However, they can reflect off surfaces such as snow and ice, meaning they can still cause damage in winter.
UVB penetrates the outer layer of the skin and causes severe damage to the epidermal layers. It is the primary cause of sunburn and, in some cases, is more dangerous than UVA.
This ultraviolet radiation sets off a bit of a chain reaction in our skin cells, including damage to the DNA and in extreme cases, cell death. Sometimes, this damage has a domino effect, making it impossible for cells to repair themselves and causing them to mutate — the very thing that leads to skin cancer, including melanoma.
Here’s What You Can Do
Whether it’s a sunspot, premature ageing, or cell damage, we know the effect of sun damage is not only skin-deep.
While having a sun-kissed tan is good to look at, remember that UV damage is cumulative — all those moments out in the sun growing up is actually causing skin trauma and building up over time.
If you enjoyed years of Australia’s outdoor, sun-worshipping lifestyle, the damage has been done. But it’s not too late.
You can still take the reins of your future. The key — should the damage be potentially critical — is early detection.
With today's advanced technology that detects skin cancer in its earliest stages, one can still reverse a potentially risky condition.
If you spent a lifetime in the sun, get chronic sunburns, or have a history of skin cancer in your family, it’s time to know where you stand.