How Does the Sun Damage Your Skin?
The sun is a constant source of ultraviolet light that bombards your skin and is either reflected or absorbed. Bits of ultraviolet light, or UV rays that are reflected cannot harm your skin. However, any UV rays that are absorbed by your skin can cause a reaction in your body that leads to semi-permanent or permanent damage.
What happens when you stay in the sun too long?
Sun exposure is the cause of most of the changes to our skin that we believe is a normal part of aging. The sun’s UV light damages fibers in our skin, called elastin, over time. When these fibers begin to break down, a person’s skin can stretch, sag, and lose the ability to go back to the same way it was. The time spent in the sun also causes skin to tear and bruise more easily, which can mean it takes longer to heal. You may not see the effects of sun damage on your skin when you’re young, but it will show up later in your life as you age.
Signs of sun damage to skin include:
- Age spots
- Sagging skin
What is ultraviolet light?
UV light is light of a different spectrum than that of the visible spectrum we see every day. It works the same as any other type of light – it’s either absorbed or reflected. Darker colors absorb more light than lighter colors.
When ultraviolet light hits our skin, it has a chance to be reflected immediately by the outermost layer of skin, the stratum corneum. If the UV rays are not reflected, they move into the epidermis, or the second layer of skin. Here, your body houses a special protective pigment called melanin that is activated when it makes contact with UV rays.
The melanin reacts by darkening skin, which is how sunbathers get their tans. Skin tans no matter what color it is. People with darker skin are constantly producing melanin – it is an evolutionary trait designed to provide permanent protection from the harmful sun. Lighter skinned people produce melanin only as they need it.
Why does sun lighten hair, but darken skin?
It has to do with melanin. Both skin and hair on people contain melanin. Since skin is “alive” and hair is “dead,” when the sun kills the melanin in the hair, the hair stays that color until new hair grows out. Since skin is alive, it responds to the sun damage and creates new melanin, so it looks darker.
Besides darkening skin, melanin also diffuses UV rays. Once the ultraviolet rays reach the melanin, they are spread out across the skin by melanin. This dispersal prevents the light from reaching our DNA. If ultraviolet light was able to reach our DNA without the protection of melanin, it would be corrupted and significantly reduce our life spans.
People with darker skin who produce melanin more often are able to scatter UV rays more efficiently when exposed to sun. Those with lighter skin are less adept at scattering rays, which raises the risk of skin cancer.
Tans disappear when melanin reaches the outermost layer of skin and is sloughed off in the natural skin shedding process. Since melanin is so close to the surface, it doesn’t take long for a tan to return to your natural skin color.
What is a sunburn?
What we think of as a sunburn is actually a radiation burn from overexposure to ultraviolet radiation. When the melanin can no longer spread out UV rays across your skin, the light begins to damage overexposed areas.
Your body responds by sending blood to the affected areas to transport nutrients and aid the healing process. The extra blood near the skin’s surface turns the burned areas red.
A sunburn is not a protective measure from UV radiation.
Itching After Sun Exposure
If your skin feels itchy after a long period of time in the sun, you could have a heat rash. Heat rashes happen when your sweat glands become blocked by little blisters that form on the skin. Heat rash, also known as miliaria, causes skin to redding if glands become blocked by a deeper layer of skin. This causes the skin to feel irritated and itchy, which is why is also sometimes commonly called prickly heat.
How can you protect your skin from the sun?
Without shelter, you can’t ever be completely protected from the sun’s rays.
Even on cloudy days, ultraviolet light is still streaming through the clouds. There are fewer rays that penetrate clouds, but with enough exposure, it’s possible to be burned by the radiation that makes its way through.
It’s also a popular belief that being in the water offers 100% protection from UV rays. The surface of water is able to reflect a moderate amount of light from the visible and ultraviolet spectrum of light, but it won’t reflect all of it. The protection from water is something like having an extra layer of skin – it will certainly help, but it won’t prevent overexposure to the sun.
The best way to prevent sun damage is to limit your exposure to the sun by balancing your time in direct sunlight and inside shelter. The sun offers Vitamin D essential to physical and mental health. Keeping a healthy schedule of time in the sun and time outside of the sun is key to peak body and skin health.
A sun shade or patio enclosure will allow you to enjoy the outdoors without exposing yourself to the sun’s harmful radiation. Save your skin with an awning or shade for your patio or home.