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Risks of Sun Exposure and How to Minimize It

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We are in the middle of summer, which means the yearnings for pool side tanning and skimpy clothing abound. It’s only natural to want to get some sun after being mostly indoors all winter, after months of all the layered clothing and letting your leg hair grow out like Chewbacca. But is it really a healthy idea to bask in the sun? Nope! In fact, it’s kind of a bad idea, and here’s why.

Everyone’s skin contains melanin- a brown pigment in the top layer of the skin. This is responsible for the natural color of your skin as well as your ability to tan. The more sun you’re exposed to, the more melanin the skin produces to protect you, and then the darker you become. Yes, people with naturally dark skin have more protection from the sun, but that does not mean they are immune to the effects. No matter what color your skin is, the sun can cause damage, and you need proper protection. Here are some of the most common things that can happen to your skin from sun damage:

  • Uneven coloration: Melanin doesn’t always release evenly throughout your skin causing irregular colors, which can make it look mottled and red in some places.
  • Liver spots/age spots: Any age of people are susceptible to these, not just the elder population.
  • Wrinkles: The harmful radiation from the sun breaks down the skin’s connective tissue- the collagen and elastin fibers that many skin care products claim to will help restore. When those supportive fibers are damaged, the skin becomes loose and starts to wrinkle. This condition is technically called solar elastosis and consists of creases, sagging of the skin, and deep wrinkles.
  • Actinic keratoses: These are scaly raised patches that appear on your skin from sun damage and range in color from brown to dark pink. These can grow in size and progress to skin cancer if left untreated.
  • Skin cancer: Cancer, even of the skin, is nothing to take lightly. I’ve seen friends, family, and patients die from skin cancer as well as lose large proportions of skin and muscle in order to remove skin cancer.

I don’t know about you, but none of the aforementioned problems sound like fun to me. As women, we fight so hard to keep our skin looking healthy and younger, hopefully for our own enjoyment, but a lot of times it’s also because the media equates beauty with being young, thin, tan, and smooth- but that’s a whole separate issue. Don’t let society dictate your health outcomes. You can’t control every disease that you may or may not get; but, protecting yourself from sun damage is something you can control. It’s also really easy and cheap. Here are some tips for keeping that skin protected:

  • Cover yourself: This is pretty obvious, but cover as much skin as you can when you go outside. Wear hats or bring an umbrella if you expect to be outside in the sun for long periods. Also remember that covering up only provides partial protection. The sun is a crafty bugger, and can still get you by bouncing off objects and the ground. So…
  • WEAR SUNSCREEN: I cannot stress this enough. This is the most important prevention tip and the easiest to do. Now, a lot of moisturizers and foundations come with some kind of sunscreen in them so make sure to pick one of those. Make sure it’s at least SPF 15, but higher is better. Apply it every day and repeatedly throughout the day. Don’t forget about other parts of the body too. If you plan on wearing shorts and a tank top, apply sunscreen to your legs, feet, arms, hands, face, chest, and don’t forget the ears. Sunscreen-suiting up doesn’t take long and is cheap. And remember, like a horror movie villain, the sun is always where you least expect it. It comes in through the windows of the house and car and can even affect you on cloudy days. So make it a habit to put on sunscreen during your morning routine if your day is going to include any kind of solar exposure.
  • Don’t sunbath or go to tanning beds: Ask yourself what’s more important- having a nice glowing tan each and every summer, or protecting yourself from looking old and possibly getting cancer in the future? I’m betting we’ve all seen someone whose skin looks like a pile of spotty, leather junk even though they’re just hitting their thirties or forties, and it’s because they went tanning and ignored the mountains of professionals telling them not to.
  • Teach your children: For starters, slather your children up with sunscreen. They may not like it, but it’s for their own good. Teach them to do the same as they become older. As a teenager, I never wore sunscreen and suffered some horrible sun burns. Now I’ve got a few dark spots on my shoulders thanks to my teenage dumb-dumb. Had I known what I know now I would have been more careful.

Educate yourself and your family on the topic of protecting your skin, and feel encouraged to add more tips in the comments below.

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About Anonymous RN

Anonymous RN has a Bachelors of Science degree in Nursing and has been working primarily on a medical-surgical floor for the past 5 years. She enjoys educating people about their bodies and how to take care of them. She cares about your health, but please do not send pictures of the weird looking growth on your buttocks and ask for advice. That's something for you and your doctor to work out!