Answering Your Burning Questions About Sun Exposure

Flip-flops and bathing suits coupled with clear skies and warm temperatures may seem like a winning combination, but exposed skin can only handle so much time in the sun. Without protection, our skin is vulnerable to the damaging effects of sun exposure.

“It’s a myth that tanned skin is a sign of health,” said Amy McMichael, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “The reality is, tanned skin is a sign of damaged skin cells.”

Dr. McMichael answers some of the most frequently asked questions regarding sun exposure:

What’s the difference between UVA, UVB and UVC rays?

Radiation from the sun comes in 3 types, ultraviolet A (UVA), UVB and UVC rays, but only UVA and UVB rays reach the earth’s surface. Overexposure to either UVA or UVB radiation can increase our risk of developing skin cancer. While UVB radiation is the primary cause of sunburn, UVA rays are sometimes referred to as “aging rays” because they can cause skin to prematurely develop wrinkles and age spots. Unfortunately, windows don’t provide protection from UVA rays.

What kind of sunscreen is best, and how often should it be reapplied?

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and broad-spectrum protection. Broad-spectrum sunscreen protects skin from both UVA and UVB rays.

Make sure to apply sunscreen to all exposed skin at least every 2 hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming and sweating.

Sunscreen has a shelf life of 3 years, so check the expiration date.

Is it smart to get a base tan before heading to the beach to soak up the rays?

No. Building a base tan is not advisable. While it may help prevent sunburn, it does not prevent skin damage.

Do different skin types handle the sun better than others?

A number of factors contribute to a person’s sensitivity to the sun, including skin type. Overall, people with fairer skin that burns easily are more likely to develop sunburn and skin cancer than those with darker skin that tans easily. However, enough sun exposure can lead to skin cancer in anyone, regardless of skin color.

What are the risk factors for skin cancer?

In addition to fair skin, a history of bad sunburns and a family history of skin cancer are a couple of the major risk factors for skin cancer. It’s important to understand that sun damage is cumulative, so a tan or sunburn you get today can have lasting effects.

What are the early signs of skin cancer?

Skin cancer is one of the only types of cancer that is visible. To spot it, perform routine self-exams of your entire body. Consult a dermatologist immediately if one of your moles or other brown spots has increased in size or changed in color, shape or texture.

Other warning signs include a spot that continually itches, hurts, scabs or bleeds, and an open sore that has not healed within 3 weeks.

“If you want that bronzed glow, my best advice is to try sunless methods such as topical creams or spray-on products,” McMichael said. “Your skin will thank you years from now.”