Many people love the sun. The sun's rays make us feel good, and in the short term, it makes us look good. But our love affair isn't a two-way street: Exposure to sun causes most of the wrinkles and age spots on our faces. Consider this: One woman at age 40 who has protected her skin from the sun actually has the skin of a 30-year-old.
We often associate a glowing complexion with good health, but skin color obtained from being in the sun can actually mean accelerated effects of aging and an increased risk for developing skin cancer.
Sun exposure causes most of the skin changes that we think of as a normal part of aging. Over time, the sun's ultraviolet (UV) light damages the fibers in the skin called elastin. When these fibers breakdown, the skin begins to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to go back into place after stretching. The skin also bruises and tears more easily in addition to taking longer to heal. So while sun damage to the skin may not be apparent when you're young, it will definitely show later in life.
Changes in the skin related to sun exposure:
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the US, and the number of cases continues to rise. It is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. While healthy cells grow and divide in an orderly way, cancer cells grow and divide in a rapid, haphazard manner. This rapid growth results in tumors that are either benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
There are three main types of skin cancer:
Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are less serious types and make up 95% of all skin cancers. Also referred to as non-melanoma skin cancers, they are highly curable when treated early.
Melanoma, made up of abnormal skin pigment cells called melanocytes, is the most serious form of skin cancer and causes 75% of all skin cancer deaths. Left untreated, it can spread to other organs and is difficult to control.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the number one cause of skin cancer, but UV light from tanning beds is just as harmful. Exposure to sunlight during the winter months puts you at the same risk as exposure during the summertime.
Cumulative sun exposure causes mainly basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer, while episodes of severe blistering sunburns, usually before age 18, can cause melanoma later in life. Other less common causes are repeated X-ray exposure, scars from burns or disease, and occupational exposure to certain chemicals.
Although anyone can get skin cancer, the risk is greatest for people who have fair or freckled skin that burns easily, light eyes and blond or red hair. Darker-skinned individuals are also susceptible to all types of skin cancer, although their risk is lower.
Aside from complexion, other risk factors include having a family history or personal history of skin cancer, having an outdoor job, and living in a sunny climate. A history of severe sunburns and an abundance of large and irregularly shaped moles are risk factors unique to melanoma.
The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin, typically a new mole or skin lesion or a change in an existing mole.
When looking for melanoma, think of the ABCD rule that tells you the signs to watch for:
Skin cancer is suspected by its appearance on the skin. The diagnosis must be confirmed with a biopsy. This involves taking a sample of the tissue, which is then placed under a microscope and examined by a dermatopathologist, a doctor who specializes in examining skin cells. Sometimes a biopsy can remove all of the cancer tissue and no further treatment is needed.
Treatment of skin cancer depends on the type and extent of the disease. Treatment is individualized and is determined by the type of skin cancer, its size and location, and the patient's preference.
Standard treatments for non-melanoma skin cancer (basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas) include:
Standard treatments for melanoma include:
Nothing can completely undo sun damage, although the skin can sometimes repair itself. So, it's never too late to begin protecting yourself from the sun. Your skin does change with age; for example, you sweat less and your skin can take longer to heal, but you can delay these changes by staying out of the sun.
Maintaining healthy skin
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 04/22/2015