It's true our bodies need sun. The sun helps with our sleep patterns in the summer and can also cause depression in the winter with the shortened daylight. Sunlight also helps our skin make vitamin D, which is needed for normal bone function and health. Yet sunlight can also cause damage.
We know that too much exposure to the sun can cause us to sunburn.The outermost layer of skin constantly sheds dead skin cells and replaces them. You might have noticed this type of skin repair if you’ve ever had a bad sunburn. Your skin may peel, but it usually looks normal in a week or 2.
“When you’re exposed to ultraviolet radiation, there’s a repair process that goes on constantly in each one of your exposed cells,” says Dr. Stephen I. Katz, director of NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Still, long-term damage to your skin can remain.
As we age, it's harder for our skin to repair itself, over time, UV damage can take a toll on your skin and its underlying connective tissue. As a result, your skin may develop more wrinkles and lines. And also, too much exposure can cause skin cancer. Skin cancer may first appear as a small spot on the skin. Some cancers reach deep into surrounding tissue. They may also spread from the skin to other organs of the body.
“One of the major factors affecting skin health is genetics, which determines the pigment content of your skin. This affects how much protection you have from natural sunlight,” explains Katz. Although darker-skinned people have a lower risk for sun-related damage and disease, people of all races and skin color can still get skin cancer.
The best way to protect skin health and prevent skin cancer is to limit sun exposure. Avoid prolonged time in the sun, and choose to be in the shade rather than in direct sunlight. Wear protective clothing and sunglasses, and use sunscreen between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Sunscreen is especially important at that time, when the sun’s rays are most intense.
The time to really start sun protective behavior is not when you reach adulthood, but years before,” Kramer says. “The message to parents is, now is the time to start protecting your child against skin damage from sun overexposure, when your child is developing sun exposure habits and when they have many more years of potential sun exposure ahead of them.” Among other skin-protecting habits, teach children and teens to avoid the use of tanning beds.
Some people look to the sun as a source of vitamin D, but it takes just a brief time in the sun to do the trick. “You need very little exposure—something like 10 to 15 minutes a day to the backs of your hands, arms, and face—to get enough,” Katz says.
Be sun smart and keep yourself protected.