What are UV Rays and How Do They Hurt My Skin?

It’s a rather well-known fact that too much sun exposure has a negative effect on your skin. But many people don’t understand why this is and what the sun can actually do. To learn more about how the sun damages your skin and how you can prevent it, read on for the details from our board-certified dermatologists and physician assistants at Dermatology Associates of Atlanta.

What are UV Rays and How Do They Hurt My SkinWhat is UV radiation?

UV stands for “ultraviolet.” It’s a high-energy light that is beyond what the human eye can see. There are three main types of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC has the highest amount of energy, but most of it is trapped by the ozone layer, so it doesn’t appear to have much effect on skin damage. UVA and UVB, however, do affect your skin’s health and appearance. UVA rays penetrate deeper than UVB and they cause more loss of proteins like elastin and collagen (which keep skin firm) within the deeper layer of skin called the dermis. The loss of elasticity and volume causes wrinkling to develop, so UVA is more associated with sun-induced aging. Although both rays can tan the skin, UVB is more efficient and therefore is the chief cause of suntan/sunburn. Both rays play a role in the development of skin cancers but UVA has specifically been implicated in melanoma development.

How Does Sun Exposure Cause Skin Cancer?

In a nutshell, ultraviolet rays cause cancer by damaging the DNA in certain cells in your skin. Your cells have some ability to repair themselves, but over time, the UV exposure can be stronger than your cells’ healing abilities. Skin cancer happens when these DNA changes stop your cells from being able to control their growth, and this rapid cell growth creates a tumor. There are three primary types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. These names come from the type of cell that develops the cancer, whether it’s a basal cell, a squamous cell, or a melanocyte, but these are all types of cells within your skin.

How Does Sun Exposure Cause Premature Aging?

As we mentioned earlier, UVA rays primarily affect the dermis – the deeper layer of the skin. The dermis is full of protein fibers called collagen, which gives the skin a youthful, firm, tight structure. Your body is constantly breaking down collagen and producing new collagen to replace it, but your collagen production slows with age, which is why skin develops wrinkles and begins to sag as we get older. UVA rays, however, speed up this aging process. The UVA causes your body to produce more of a specific enzyme that breaks down collagen. It also interferes with your cells’ ability to reap the benefits of Vitamin A, and this leads to faster thinning of the skin. Top all this off with the fact that UV rays cause your skin cells to produce excess pigment which forms age spots (also known as “liver spots”), and you begin to recognize that those sunbathing sessions are doing more harm than good for your appearance.

Tips for Reducing Sun Damage

As unpleasant as all this aging and skin cancer sounds, it doesn’t mean you should fear the sun. All you have to do is take a few precautions to keep your skin safer:

  • Limit your sun exposure from 10am – 4pm, especially during the spring and summer.
  • Look for clothing with a tight weave that lists a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) to indicate how well it protects your skin from the sun.
  • When shopping for sunscreen, look for a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen or one that states that it blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Ideally, look for a waterproof one as well, and shop for an SPF of 30 or higher.
  • Wear sunscreen every day, regardless of how much (or how little) you plan to go outside. Just add it in as part of your morning skin care routine.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before you go outside and reapply every 90 minutes to two hours (or sooner if your sunscreen may have been washed off by sweating or swimming), especially if you’re out in the sun.
  • Wear UV-blocking sunglasses to protect your eyes and the delicate skin around them.
  • Remember that the sun can still damage your skin through windows and overcast skies, so make sun protection a priority every day – not just on sunny days you’re spending outside.
  • Visit a board-certified dermatologist or physician assistant for an annual skin cancer screening. Between appointments do a self-check every month to look for any moles or spots that have changed.

At Dermatology Associates of Atlanta, we recognize that the first step toward helping our patients protect their skin is teaching them how. The knowledge you’ve just gained will help you better understand how to protect your skin and why it’s important. For more skin health tips and interesting information, follow Dermatology Associates of Atlanta on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. If it’s time for a skin cancer screening, schedule an appointment with our experienced providers today.