Sun damage refers to skin conditions which appear as a direct result of sun exposure. Ultraviolet (UV) electromagnetic (light) radiation present in sunlight damages skin cells and can cause a variety of skin problems, some more serious than others. Even if you don’t burn, sun exposure can still damage your skin and a suntan is actually a sign of sun damage, despite the healthy-looking appearance it may give you.
WHAT CAUSES SUN DAMAGE?
Sun damage is caused by exposing unprotected skin to the sun for too long. We need some exposure to sunlight as it is an important source of vitamin D, but overexposure to UV rays (ultraviolet radiation) damages the skin’s cellular DNA and can cause pigmentation, wrinkles, dryness, sunburn, leathery texture - and even cancer.
SYMPTOMS OF SUN DAMAGE
Sunburn occurs when bare skin is exposed to direct sunlight for too long, resulting in inflammation of the epidermis layer. It causes the skin to turn pink or red in colour and become very tender to the touch. Sunburn can also cause the skin to blister and peel. More severe cases of sunburn can result in infection, dizziness, dehydration and sunstroke.
Age spots, also commonly known as liver spots or solar lentigines, are small patches of hyperpigmentation (darkness) on the surface of the skin. They are most often found on the hands, face, neck and chest, or areas of the skin which experience the most sun exposure. They are not dangerous, but are a sign that the skin has had a lot of exposure to UV radiation and are more common in older people. Age spots are not harmful, but some people choose to have them removed for cosmetic reasons.
Wrinkles or solar elastosis
Collagen is the substance which gives skin its elasticity and bounce. Young skin has lots of collagen, hence its smooth, plump appearance. As we age, the amount of collagen in the skin begins to deplete, causing it to lose its structure, resulting in wrinkles and sagging skin. Sun exposure speeds this process up, breaking down the skin’s collagen and causing wrinkles, or ‘solar elastosis’.
Thread veins are tiny visible veins which typically occur on the nose and cheeks. Usually one appears as a red dot, but can sometimes cause redness to the surrounding skin, leaving you with rosy, flushed cheeks. Sun exposure causes a depletion in the amount of collagen in your skin, leaving it thinner and making veins appear more visible. If you suffer with rosacea, sun exposure can exacerbate this problem and in turn make thread veins worse.
When skin cells are healthy, your skin will appear normal and even. However, when skin cells become damaged or unhealthy, extra melanin is produced to help protect your skin. Alternatively, the cells that produce pigment can be damaged, which prevents melanin production. As a result, parts of your skin may turn lighter (hypopigmentation) or darker (hyperpigmentation), both of which are recognised skin conditions. Pigmentation can occur for a variety of reasons, including overexposure to the sun. The effects can also become more obvious as we age and if left untreated and unprotected, can worsen.
Overexposure or long-term exposure to the sun can cause serious skin damage which may lead to skin cancer. There are a number of different types of skin cancers, the most common being basal cell skin cancer, squamous cell skin cancer and melanoma. Sometimes moles can develop into a form of skin cancer called a malignant melanoma. If you notice new moles or existing moles that have changed shape, colour, size, height, or if they become irritated or start bleeding, then it's important you go to your GP immediately to get them checked.
Actinic keratoses (AKs) are small crusty bumps of skin which typically appear on the face, lips, ears, scalp, shoulders, neck and back of the hands and forearms. They can vary in size from a tiny blemish to an inch in diameter. AKs are a type of pre-cancer of the skin, caused by overexposure to the sun. Seek medical advice immediately if you believe you may have developed actinic keratoses.
HOW CAN I REDUCE/PREVENT SUN DAMAGE?
- Wear a sun block or sunscreen daily.
- Cover your skin as much as possible when exposed to direct sunlight.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face.
- Reapply sunscreen regularly and liberally, especially if you are getting in and out of water or sweating a lot.
- Visit the British Skin Foundation website for more information about spotting the signs of skin cancer.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What’s the difference between UVA, UVB and UVC radiation?
- UVA, UVB and UVC radiation has different wavelengths. UVA and UVB are the rays you need to be concerned about when it comes to the health of your skin. They play a key role in premature ageing and skin cancers. UVC rays do not penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and therefore do not reach your skin.
- UVB is what causes your skin to burn and tends to damage the superficial layers of the skin as it does not penetrate as deeply as UVA.
- UVA rays are what make your skin tan and also cause premature ageing.
- Recent studies suggest both UVA and UVB rays can be harmful to your skin’s health.
Can your reverse sun damage?
Some signs of sun damage can be reversed with professional skin treatments. Deep exfoliating treatments such as microdermabrasion and chemical skin peels can help fade stubborn age spots and pigmentation caused by sun damage.
Rejuvenation treatments, such as dermal fillers and lip fillers can be used to help plump out the skin where sagging and wrinkles have appeared due to a depletion in collagen caused by sun exposure. Anti-ageing injectables like botulinum toxin can be used to relax the facial muscles to help prevent further wrinkles occurring from repetitive movements (for example frown lines on the forehead).
Other innovative treatments, such as microneedling, are designed to help stimulate the skin’s natural production of collagen, for a plumping effect. Topical skin creams and other skin products can also help to address the signs of ageing by improving the texture and tone of the skin. Laser resurfacing systems such as Fraxel can be used to target and destroy sun-damaged skin, removing it altogether to reveal fresh, new skin beneath.
NATURAL REMEDIES FOR SUN DAMAGE
There are many natural skin-loving ingredients that can help soothe sun-damaged skin. Aloe vera has moisturising and cooling properties which are particularly comforting for sunburnt skin, or dry, flaking skin caused by sun exposure. Coconut oil also makes a great natural aftersun lotion as it is naturally moisturising and is gentle enough for sensitive skin types.