It’s no secret that sunburns are bad news.
In the short term, they can be quite painful and occasionally accompanied by blisters, swelling and other unsavory side effects like headache, nausea and dizziness in more extreme cases. The real threat of sunburn, however, lies in the long term and how it affects your skin over time.
It pays to take good care of your skin now to keep it healthier later, said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D., especially when it comes to sun exposure.
“Summertime naturally brings about more outdoor activities, and they all can set the stage for sunburn,” said Prescott, a physician and medical researcher. “It’s important to be vigilant, because it’s not just a sunburn that leads to problems. The most common forms of skin cancer tend to occur based on total exposure to sunlight.”
Ultraviolet rays are the leading factor in causing skin cancer, which is the most common cancer in the U.S. In fact, more people have suffered from skin cancer than all other cancers combined over the past three decades, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation.
“All of us are at risk for sun-induced skin changes from cumulative sun exposure, particularly to UV rays,” said Prescott. “The infrared rays are not thought to be dangerous, even though that’s what makes you appear pinkish or red when you come in out of the sun. That typically goes away within a few hours, but it’s the ultraviolet that comes back to get you later.”
There are three main types of skin cancer. Squamous cell and basal cell cancers are the most common, accounting for 3.5 million cases per year in the U.S. alone, according to the American Cancer Society. These most often present themselves in areas that tend to be exposed to sunlight frequently, such as the back of the neck or top of the ears.
Avoiding sunburns and overexposure also will help reduce unwanted lines, wrinkles, freckles, discoloration, sagging skin and other damage. But sunlight may not be the only culprit, said Prescott.
“Even if you use a tanning bed or booth and never get burned by the sun itself, it’s probably having the same negative effects on skin aging and the cancer risks.”
But even with skin cancer, Prescott has good news, “Most skin cancers are absolutely curable if found early. They can often be removed through a variety of mechanisms like surgery or chemical treatment, and just by using standard precautions, they often never recur.”
It’s also wise to have a skin check performed periodically by a dermatologist, general practitioner or internist, he said. “Like all types of cancer, skin cancers are treated much more effectively when they are detected early.”
While skin cancers can occur in anyone, there is plenty you can do to protect yourself. Prescott said the obvious place to start is with sunscreen, preferably 15 SPF or higher. More effective measures include covering up with long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats and staying in the shade as much as possible.
“The best thing you can do for your long-term health is avoid excess sunlight,” said Prescott. “A little time in the sun to get your vitamin D is fine, but 10 minutes a day will accomplish that. This American idea of having ‘the perfect tan’ is not healthy for your skin.”