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Do you know the signs of sun damage?

Last Modified: May 15, 2021


sun damage

There’s nothing more enjoyable than the warmth of sunshine on your face. Sunlight is extremely beneficial and supplies your body with key nutrients, but it might surprise you to know that too much exposure to those golden rays could be harmful. Dara Spearman, MD, FAAD, medical director, PPG – Dermatology, Parkview Physicians Group and chair for the Skin Cancer Care Team, Parkview Cancer Institute, takes an in-depth look at several different types of sun damage and what it could mean for your skin.

Evidence of sun damage

Here are some of the most common signs of skin damage:

  • Tan: Tanned skin is actually evidence of damage to the skin at a molecular level. When this happens immediately after sun exposure, this is due to UVA radiation. When it occurs a few days after sun exposure, it is most likely due to UVB radiation. It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a healthy tan.
  • Sunburn: This form of skin damage is evident to most people due to the redness and pain associated with sunburn. First-degree burns are milder, but the skin will redden and may be tender to the touch. Second-degree burns can lead to blistering of the skin and cause tissue damage. Additionally, sunburns during childhood can significantly increase the risk of developing skin cancer, particularly melanoma, as an adult.
  • Uneven pigmentation: The skin can produce extra pigment, called melanin, to help protect itself from the damaging effects of the sun. It can make your skin look darker like a suntan, but sometimes that pigment formation is uneven and can produce irregular coloring. Sun damage can also cause permanent dilation or stretching of blood vessels, causing your skin to look blotchy or red.
  • Freckles: These are flat spots of increased pigmentation that are beige or brown. They usually develop in areas of the body that receive regular sun exposure, such as the face, chest and forearms. They can darken in the summer months with increased exposure. Your tendency to develop freckles is genetic, but the actual development of these lesions is directly related to sun exposure and/or damage.
  • Melasma: This is an irregular patch of skin darkening or pigmentation that usually occurs on the forehead, cheeks, nose, upper lip or chin. In addition to sun damage, this condition is also strongly influenced by changes in hormones as seen in pregnancy or with the use of birth control pills.
  • Age Spots: These are flat brown spots located in areas of chronic ultraviolet (UV) exposure. Primarily seen in adults, age spots or lentigines are from the sun or tanning beds and can become more frequent with age. They are similar to freckles, but freckles tend to fade during colder months while age spots remain stable.
  • Solar elastosis: This presents as yellowed or thickened skin with deep wrinkles that don’t disappear with stretching. This occurs from prolonged sun exposure and is due to the breakdown of connective tissue, like the scaffolding for our skin, including elastin and collagen fibers, which comprises the deeper layers of skin. Without those fibers, the skin loses its elastic quality and ability to snap back. 
  • Actinic keratoses: These are rough, scaly patches of skin that can range in color from pink, tan to brown. They are pre-cancerous lesions that, if left untreated, may progress into a form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Basal cell and Squamous cell carcinoma: These are the most common forms of skin cancer 1 and 2. They usually present as red bumps or patches that do not go away. Basal cell and Squamous cell carcinoma typically grow slowly but can grow rapidly (within a month). Both types can also lead to non-healing sores that itch or bleed.
  • Melanoma: This form of skin cancer is less common but much more severe. It often presents as dark brown or black moles with uneven borders or irregular color.   

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