Pretty much everyone has to go out into the sun at some point — it is all but unavoidable — and with July’s appearance on the calendar, here comes the sun.


Technically a yellow dwarf star, the sun makes life on earth possible, bringing heat, light and solar energy to the blue planet. It also presents dangers to people who do not take it seriously.


Melanoma is a kind of cancer that tends to start on skin that is exposed to the sun frequently, beginning in the melanocytes, which are cells that create the melanin that gives skin its pigment. Melanoma was the sixth-most common type of cancer in the U.S. in 2020 and had a rate of new cancer cases at 20 per 100,000 people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state. White patients led the new cases with 69,570 reported that year of 77,230 total.

sun skin cancer melanoma

Melanoma is one of the most common kinds of skin cancer.

Those are just some of the ways the sun can damage the body’s largest organ — the skin.


“It’s in large part irreversible when it happens,” said Dr. Zachary Young, a board certified plastic surgeon at Arkansas Plastic Surgery in Little Rock. “What we worry about with sun damage is, obviously, skin cancer.”


Dr. Zachary Young

Squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma are two common types of skin cancer associated with exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Mohs surgery, a type of microscopically controlled surgery in which cancer is removed cell by cell, can be used to remove those types of skin cancers, but Young said the best protection is prevention.


People often use the terms sunscreen and sunblock interchangeably, but the difference between the two is more than skin deep. Sunscreen is a chemical barrier, while sunblock is a physical barrier. The chemicals minimize the damage of the UVA and UVB rays, while sunblock stops the rays from making contact altogether, much like how clothing physically stops the rays from hitting one’s torso, legs, neck and other usually-covered areas. Instead of fabric, however, sunblock uses heavy metals such as iron or zinc.


“One of the biggest things we promote is good use of sunblock and to use it appropriately,” Young said.


He said people will often wait until they arrive at the beach before applying sun protection, but it is best to apply 20 to 30 minutes before going outside. Young also encourages people to reapply at appropriate times based on the SPF level, which is another area of confusion for many.


SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, is measured in multiples of the time it takes for UVB rays to damage the skin. In other words, if it takes 10 minutes for an individual to get a sunburn, applying SPF 30 would protect them from UVB rays for about five hours under static conditions, or 30 times as long.


What many consumers do not know, Young is quick to point out, is that the intensity of the sun’s beam changes throughout the day. The sun’s rays are much more direct at noon than in the morning, requiring more frequent reapplication. What is more, many sunscreens do not protect against UVA rays at all, the rays that penetrate further into the skin. That is why it is important to get a sunscreen/sunblock with broad spectrum protection.


“EltaMD is both a physical and chemical sunscreen and comes in many application options,” said Paige Kelly, a registered nurse at Wright Plastic Surgery in Little Rock. “I also love Alastin’s Hydratint Pro Mineral Sunscreen for everyday use.”

Paige Kelly

It is also important to be aware that sunscreen is often washed off with water or rubbed off when taking off and putting on articles of clothing, which reinforces the need to reapply sun protection.


“Using a sunscreen during the summer months is crucial to overall skin health and prevention of premature aging of the skin,” Kelly said. “Physical sunscreens prevent the sun’s damaging rays by providing a barrier and reflecting the rays away from the skin. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the UV rays into the skin and then converting them into heat, which is then released from the body. A wide-brim hat and clothing with SPF are also needed to protect the skin.”


Young suggested that limiting exposure to the sun, on top of good sun protection habits, can also keep people looking younger and healthier for longer. If going outside is necessary, wearing hats, long sleeve shirts and other physical barriers can help people maintain a youthful appearance.


“People that deal in skincare, we always say sun avoidance is the best thing, right?” Young said. “Your skin is going to look better the less sun it sees.”


He said other seemingly unrelated cosmetic issues such as crepiness, thin skin, texture problems and more are due to sun damage over a long period of time.


Kelly said the most common condition seen at Wright Plastic Surgery is the presence of dark spots caused by overexposure to the sun. They can be treated with lasers, chemical peels and medical-grade skin care products. She recommended any irregular or discolored moles or skin lesions be evaluated by a dermatologist. Age should also be considered when evaluating skin and determining how to treat issues.


“When discussing overall skincare, a person’s age should be considered as younger people may have more acne-prone skin that would need specific products to target sensitive skin,” Kelly said. “As we age, cell turnover slows down, leading to a dull appearance of the skin. The older patient will need products such as retinols or vitamin C to help combat a dull appearance to the skin.”


While not all sun-related skin conditions are dangerous, most everyone wants to look and feel their best. Some services provided at both businesses that combat the effects of sun exposure include microneedling, laser skin resurfacing and Mohs surgery.


Young said he does not do many Mohs procedures anymore, leaving it to his partner, Dr. David Bauer, but some doctors perform 10 to 20 Mohs surgeries a day. That shows just how many people are overexposed to damaging UV rays and why it is important to stay informed and take the danger of sun damage seriously.


“It’s the only bodysuit you’re ever going to have,” Young said. “You don’t want it to wear out.” 


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