How can I tell if the sun is damaging my skin?

One of the ways you can tell if the sun is damaging your skin is if you develop actinic keratosis, which is an early warning sign of severe sun damage. Actinic keratosis is a condition in which lesions appear as scaly red or brown bumps on the face, ears, neck, lips and forearms or on the backs of the hands. These lesions may itch or feel tender, especially when exposed to sunlight.

Most common in people over age 40, this precancerous condition develops as a result of cumulative, extensive sun exposure and can lead to skin cancer, specifically squamous cell carcinoma. Actinic keratosis is responsible for more than two million visits to dermatologists each year in the United States.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Getting enough sun is good for you. It builds up some of the nutrients that you have to have. The problem is we don't know when to stop.

Everyone needs a little sun exposure, about 15 to 20 minutes per day. Without enough sunlight, the body might not build up enough vitamin D, which helps protect against cancer and possibly high cholesterol. The sun turns cholesterol into vitamin D, so the body knows if it's not getting enough sun to elevate the cholesterol so there's at least a little bit there to get transferred to vitamin D.

Some people also suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which means that they become depressed because they are not seeing any sunshine.

While some moderate exposure to the sun has benefits, sunbathing or tanning for hours is a serious health risk. Without protection, the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays can penetrate straight into your skin, causing sunburn, skin cancer, and aging.

If you get too much sun, the sweat glands shrivel up, and the sweat, of course, dries up. The skin itself begins to get desiccated. You're destroying this covering, and therefore the skin can't protect itself. The body's natural defense against too much sun is melanin, which makes skin dark, but too much exposure can cause the melanin to stain your skin, leaving age spots.

Sunblock shields your skin from the harmful ultraviolet rays. The sun protection factor (SPF) rating you find on a sunblock bottle is based on how it blocks UVB rays, which cause sunburn. You should wear sunblock with an SPF of at least 15. Many sunblocks also block harmful UVA rays, which penetrate deep into your skin and cause aging and cancer. The SPF refers to the protection from UVB rays, not UVA, and the SPF number doesn't tell you if a sunblock protects you from both.

People with darker skin have already evolved a sort of natural SPF. Too much sun can break down important nutrients and other elements your body needs, and the melanin in darker skin protects from this loss.

Most sun damage occurs before you are 20 years old, so it is very important to protect children from too much sun. A rule of thumb is to make sure your shadow is bigger than you when you go outside because that means the sun is rising or setting. And wear sunblock most of the time.

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Whenever you get burned or tanned, you are damaging your skin. The more often your skin gets tanned or burned, the more damage is done. This damage can kill skin cells and also cause mutations in your skin, which can cause skin cancers. This is why it is important to always wear sunscreen or use sun protection.
Cybele Fishman, MD

There are outward signs that indicate sun damage, like freckles and wrinkles; there is also a machine that takes images using ultraviolet light that can reveal underlying damage. Watch dermatologist Cybele Fishman, MD, explain how to spot sun damage.

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How Can I Tell If the Sun Is Damaging My Skin?
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.