Understanding the Importance of Sun Protection for Your Skin


Sunscreen bottle next to a sun drawn with sunscreen.
Highlights
  • Sunlight comprises UVA and UVB rays that can penetrate and damage the skin. This may cause issues like premature aging, dark spots, and even skin cancer.

  • Protecting your skin from sun damage is essential to avoid exposure-related issues. Some of the best ways to do this include wearing sunscreen, choosing protective clothing, and seeking shade when possible.

  • Tools like the UV index can help you determine the level of sun protection you need in your area. This index can be found on most weather apps and websites.

  • Maintaining a healthy complexion involves more than just shielding your skin from the sun. It’s also important to examine your skin for unusual growths and to schedule a doctor’s appointment if you have concerns.

In our daily lives, it’s almost impossible to avoid being exposed to sunlight — whether you intentionally spend time outside or not.

Although the sun can be a source of joy and vitality, its ultraviolet rays can have a significant impact on our skin.

Understanding the effects of sun exposure on your skin and what you can do to avoid this is crucial for maintaining a radiant and healthy complexion.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how sunlight affects the skin, what sun damage might mean, and the steps you can take to keep yourself protected.

Understanding Sunlight and its Effects

Sunlight is made up of two types of rays — ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) — that have different effects on the skin.

It also contains UVC rays, but these can’t penetrate the ozone layer to reach Earth. This means they don’t directly affect the complexion. You’ll typically only be exposed to UVC rays when using laser therapy or specialized lamps.

UVA rays make up the majority of UV radiation that reaches the Earth. They are less intense than UVB rays but can still damage the skin.

These rays tend to penetrate the deepest layers of skin and damage collagen and elastin cells — these two components are essential for youthful-looking skin.

When these cells are damaged, it may make fine lines and wrinkles become more noticeable. Prolonged exposure to UVA rays can also increase your risk of developing skin cancer.

UVB rays have shorter wavelengths compared to UVA, which makes them stronger.

These rays affect the top layer of the skin — also known as the epidermis — and are responsible for sunburns.

They are also a main contributing factor to skin cancer, making UVB rays a serious concern.

The UV index: your sunlight guide

The UV index is a helpful tool — typically found on any weather website or app — that helps you determine the strength of sun rays during the day.

It uses factors like the sun’s angle, ozone layer thickness, and cloud cover in your area to calculate this index. The index is typically divided into the following categories:

  • Low (0-2): Minimal risk of harm. Sun protection is generally not required, but it’s always advisable to wear sunscreen and protective clothing.

  • Moderate (3-5): Moderate risk of sun damage. Sunscreen and protective clothing are recommended, especially during midday hours.

  • High (6-7): High risk of sun damage. Protective measures are essential, including sunscreen with a high SPF, sunglasses, and protective clothing.

  • Very high (8-10): Very high risk of harm. Take extra precautions if you’ll be in the sun, and try to avoid exposure during peak hours.

  • Extreme (11+): Extremely high risk of sun damage. Stay indoors if possible, or take aggressive precautions to avoid harm.

Understanding the UV index can help you make better decisions about your sun protection choices and outdoor activities.

This can prevent excessive skin damage while keeping you safe from potentially developing diseases like cancer.

Someone holding a phone at the beach and looking at the UV index.

The Dangers of Unprotected Sun Exposure

Unprotected sun exposure can have short and long-term effects on your skin and overall health.

Short-term effects are typically less serious and will resolve within a few days with over-the-counter (OTC) treatment options or home remedies. These effects may include:

  • Sunburn

  • Pain and redness

  • Peeling skin

The long-term consequences are a bit more concerning and can’t always be treated. These may include:

  • Premature aging

  • More visible wrinkles and age spots

One of the most detrimental long-term effects of unprotected sun exposure is the increased risk of developing skin cancer.

Prolonged exposure to UV radiation causes significant damage to the DNA in skin cells, which may trigger cancerous mutations. Three primary types of skin cancer associated with sun exposure are:

  • Basal cell carcinoma: This is the most common form of skin cancer and it is characterized by slow-growing, shiny, raised bumps that are pink or red in color.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: This type can appear as scaly, crusted, or bleeding lesions that can be spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.

  • Melanoma: This is the most severe form of skin cancer and can develop in moles or appear as new, unusual growths. Melanoma tends to spread to other organs quickly if left undetected.

Why is Sunscreen Important for Your Skin?

One of the easiest ways to protect your skin from sun damage is by using sunscreen with a broad-spectrum SPF.

What is SPF?

The sun protection factor (SPF) of a product measures its ability to protect your skin from the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays.

It works by either blocking or absorbing these rays to prevent them from penetrating the skin.

The SPF number you’ll commonly find on sunscreens indicates how much the product extends your time in the sun.

You’ll need to multiply that number by 10 to determine the amount of minutes that your skin will be fully protected.

For example, applying an SPF 30 sunscreen gives you around 300 minutes or five hours of protection (30 x 10).

It’s important to note that a sunscreen’s effectiveness reduces over time, so reapplication is necessary — especially if you’ve been swimming or sweating.

Why should you use a broad-spectrum SPF?

While SPF primarily measures protection against UVB rays, a broad-spectrum sunscreen also keeps your skin safe from UVA damage.

Broad-spectrum products offer a balanced defense against both rays, which gives you the best chance to protect yourself from sun-related skin issues. Choosing the right SPF level

You should consider your skin type and your duration of sun exposure when choosing the perfect SPF level for you. Here are some general guidelines:

  • SPF 15: Suitable for everyday activities with limited sun exposure. It’s best for individuals with darker skin that rarely burns.

  • SPF 30-50: Ideal for moderate sun exposure, such as outdoor sports or a day at the beach. It’s suitable for most skin types, including fair to medium.

  • SPF 50+: Recommended for extended outdoor activities and for those with fair or sensitive skin that’s prone to sunburn. SPF 50+ offers the highest level of protection available.

It’s important to reapply sunscreen often (even if you’re using the highest SPF factor) to ensure that your skin is protected at all times.

Key Point: How to Properly Apply Sunscreen

To make the most of your sunscreen, applying it correctly is essential. Let’s take a look at what this means:

  • Apply generously: Use a sufficient amount of sunscreen to cover all exposed skin areas. A general rule is to use about a shot glass-sized amount for your body and half a teaspoon for your face.

  • Start early: Apply sunscreen at least 15-30 minutes before heading outdoors. This gives your skin time to absorb the product, ensuring maximum protection.

  • Cover every inch: Don't forget often overlooked areas like the ears, neck, back of the hands, and the tops of your feet.

  • Use it every day: Even if it’s cloudy or you’re planning on staying in, the sun’s UV rays are still out and able to damage your skin. Ensure that you wear sunscreen every day year-round to keep your skin protected.

Protecting Your Skin from the Sun Beyond SPF

While sunscreen is a crucial part of avoiding UV radiation damage, it’s not your only defense against harmful rays.

Wearing protective clothing and accessories can enhance your sun safety, which further reduces the risk of sun damage.

Benefits of protective clothing

Wide-brimmed hats: Wide-brimmed hats shade your face, neck, and ears — these areas are delicate and prone to sunburn — reducing the risk of sun damage and skin cancer on the scalp and face.

Long sleeves: Clothing with long sleeves offers added protection for your arms and shoulders and keeps you cool while minimizing UV exposure.

Sunglasses with UV protection: UV-protective sunglasses shield your eyes from the sun's harmful rays. Prolonged UV exposure can increase the risk of eye conditions, so choosing a good pair of sunglasses is key.

How to choose sun-safe clothing options

When selecting clothing for sun protection, consider the following:

  • Ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating: Look for sun-protective clothing with a UPF rating of 30 or higher. A UPF 30 garment blocks 97% of UVB rays, while a UPF 50+ blocks 98%.

  • Tight weave: Opt for clothing with a tight weave, as this offers better UV protection. Hold the fabric up to the light; if you can see through it, UV rays can penetrate.

  • Dark colors: Darker colors generally provide better UV protection compared to lighter shades.

  • Moisture-wicking fabric: Moisture-wicking fabrics help you stay cool and dry by keeping sweat away from your skin. Many of these fabrics also offer UPF protection.

  • Clothing design: Some clothing is designed with built-in sun protection, such as UPF-rated swimwear, sun shirts, and sun hats.

Woman at the beach wearing a shirt to cover her skin, sunglasses, and a hat.

Tips for Minimizing Sun Exposure

Excessive sun exposure — especially during peak hours (10 AM to 4 PM) when UV rays are the strongest — can significantly increase the risk of skin damage.

In this section, we'll share some expert-approved tips to help you protect your skin from the sun.

Schedule your outdoor activities

Plan outdoor activities in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky. UV radiation is usually also less intense during these times.

Whenever possible, avoid outdoor activities during peak sun hours. This is when UVB rays are at their highest intensity and pose the biggest risk.

Organize outdoor activities with minimal sun exposure

Where possible, try to choose outdoor activities with lots of shaded areas, like walks or hikes in wooded locations.

For picnics or beach days, wear protective clothing and bring canopies to create shade and keep you protected from the sun.

If you’re planning water-based activities, opt for morning or late afternoon slots when the sun is less intense.

Use sunscreen as a backup

While sunscreen is essential, it shouldn’t be your sole defense against UV radiation.

Use it alongside other sun protection measures — like shade and protective clothing — for extensive protection.

Be mindful of reflected sunlight

Reflective surfaces — like water, sand, and snow — can intensify UV exposure.

Take extra precautions when visiting beaches, lakes, and snow-capped mountains. Always wear sunglasses and apply sunscreen generously.

How Regularly Should You Get a Medical Examination for Your Skin?

Taking care of your skin often goes beyond sun protection. It also involves being proactive about early detection of cancerous growths and maintaining your overall health.

Self-examination

Regular self-examination is crucial for detecting any unusual moles, growths, or changes in your skin’s appearance. Follow these steps to perform a self-examination:

  • Use adequate lighting: Perform your check in a well-lit room with a full-length and handheld mirror for hard-to-see areas.

  • Check all areas: Examine your entire body, including areas not typically exposed to the sun — such as your scalp, between your toes, and under your nails.

When evaluating moles or spots, follow the ABCDE rule:

  • Asymmetry: Look for moles or spots that are asymmetrical in shape.

  • Border irregularity: Check for uneven, jagged, or poorly defined borders.

  • Color changes: Note any variations in color, especially if a mole becomes multicolored or darkens.

  • Diameter: Pay attention to moles larger than the size of a pencil eraser (about 6 mm or 1/4 inch).

  • Evolving: Take note of any mole or spot that changes in size, shape, color, or height.

If you notice any suspicious changes during your self-examination, consult your doctor or a dermatologist for a professional evaluation.

Routine checkups

While self-examinations are valuable, routine visits to a dermatologist are equally important for maintaining skin health.

Dermatologists are trained to identify and address skin conditions and can offer personalized advice based on your skin type and history.

Regular dermatologist visits can be beneficial, especially if you have a family history of skin cancer or you struggle with other skin-related issues.

A person using a magnifying glass to inspect moles.

Where Can You Learn More About the Impact of Sun Exposure?

If you’re concerned about sun exposure or want to know more about protecting your skin from UV radiation, LifeMD is here to help.

A team of medical professionals can assist you with information and provide guidance on how to effectively protect your skin from sun damage.

Make an appointment today to learn more about the impact of sun exposure and how LifeMD can help you protect your skin.

LifeMD makes it easy to stay on top of your health because talking to a doctor, filling your prescriptions, getting your labs done—and more—are all easy and cost-effective. Come discover a healthcare solution built around you and your life.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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