Sun exposure and skin changes
Many skin changes, such as skin cancer and age spots, are caused by exposure to the sun.
The two types of sun rays that can injure the skin are ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). UVA affects the deep layers of skin. UVA is more intense than UVB and is the main cause of sunburns.
The best way to lower your risk of skin changes is to protect your skin from the sun. This includes using sunscreen and other protective measures.
- Avoid sun exposure, particularly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when UV rays are the strongest.
- Remember that the higher the altitude, the quicker your skin burns with sun exposure. And the start of summer is when UV rays can cause the most skin damage.
- Use sun protection, even on cloudy days. Clouds and haze do not protect you from the sun and can even make UVB rays stronger.
- Avoid surfaces that reflect light, such as water, sand, concrete, snow, and areas that are painted white.
- Do not use sun lamps and tanning beds (tanning salons). Spending 15 to 20 minutes at a tanning salon is as dangerous as a day spent in the sun.
Adults and children should wear clothing to protect skin against the sun. This is in addition to applying sunscreen. Suggestions for clothing include:
- Long-sleeve shirts and long pants. Look for loose-fitting, unbleached, tightly woven fabrics. The tighter the weave, the more protective the garment.
- A hat with a wide brim that can shade your whole face from the sun.
- Special clothing that protects the skin by absorbing UV rays.
- Sunglasses that block UVA and UVB rays, for anyone above age 1.
It is important not to rely on sunscreen alone for sun protection. Wearing sunscreen is also not a reason to spend more time in the sun. Sunscreen does not appear to protect against melanoma and other skin cancers. Other factors seem to play a role in how these skin cancers develop.
The best sunscreens to choose include:
- Sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB. These products are labeled as broad spectrum.
- Sunscreen labeled SPF 30 or higher. SPF stands for sun protection factor. This number indicates how well the product protects the skin from UV damage.
- Those that are water resistant, even if your activities do not include swimming. This type of sunscreen stays on your skin longer when your skin gets wet.
Avoid products that combine sunscreen and insect repellent. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied often. Insect repellent applied too often could be harmful.
If your skin is sensitive to the chemicals in sunscreen products, choose a mineral sunscreen such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
Less expensive products that have the same ingredients work as well as expensive ones.
When applying sunscreen:
- Wear it every day when going outdoors, even for a short time.
- Apply 30 minutes before going outdoors for best results. This allows time for the sunscreen to be absorbed into your skin.
- Remember to use sunscreen during the winter.
- Apply a large amount to all exposed areas. This includes your face, nose, ears, and shoulders. Do not forget your feet.
- Follow package instructions about how often to reapply.
- Always reapply after swimming or sweating.
- Use a lip balm with sunscreen.
Sun protection and children
While in the sun, children should be well covered with clothing, sunglasses, and hats. Children should be kept out of the sun during peak sunlight hours.
Sunscreens are safe for most toddlers and children. But use products that contain zinc and titanium, as they contain fewer chemicals that may irritate young skin.
Do not use sunscreen on babies younger than 6 months without talking to your doctor or pediatrician first.
Jou PC, Feldman RJ, Tomecki KJ. UV protection and sunscreens: what to tell patients. Cleveland Clin J Med. 2012;79:427-436.
Krakowski AC, Kaplan LA. Exposure to radiation from the sun. In: Auerbach PS. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2011:chap 14.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA press release: FDA announces changes to better inform consumers about sunscreen. Available at http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm258940.htm. Accessed August 19, 2013.
Kevin Berman, MD, PhD, Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.