Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Cosmetic Procedures: Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer

The sun's rays make us feel good, and in the short term, make us look good. But our love affair isn't a two-way street: Exposure to sun causes most of the wrinkles and age spots on our faces. Consider this: One woman at age 40 who has protected her skin from the sun actually has the skin of a 30-year-old!

We often associate a glowing complexion with good health, but skin color obtained from being in the sun – or in a tanning booth – actually accelerates the effects of aging and increases your risk for developing skin cancer.

Sun exposure causes most of the skin changes that we think of as a normal part of aging. Over time, the sun's ultraviolet (UV) light damages the fibers in the skin called elastin. When these fibers break down, the skin begins to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to go back into place after stretching. The skin also bruises and tears more easily -- taking longer to heal. So while sun damage to the skin may not be apparent when you're young, it will definitely show later in life.

How Does the Sun Change My Skin?

Exposure to the sun causes:

  • Pre-cancerous (actinic keratosis) and cancerous (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma) skin lesions - caused by loss of the skin's immune function
  • Benign tumors
  • Fine and coarse wrinkles
  • Freckles
  • Discolored areas of the skin, called mottled pigmentation
  • Sallowness -- a yellow discoloration of the skin
  • Telangiectasias -- the dilation of small blood vessels under the skin
  • Elastosis -- the destruction of the elastic and collagen tissue (causing lines and wrinkles)

What Causes Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of all cancers in the U.S. and the number of cases continues to rise. It is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. This rapid growth results in tumors, which are either benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are less serious types and make up 95% of all skin cancers. Also referred to as non-melanoma skin cancers, they are highly curable when treated early. Melanoma, made up of abnormal skin pigment cells called melanocytes, is the most serious form of skin cancer and causes 75% of all skin cancer deaths. Left untreated, it can spread to other organs and is difficult to control.

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the number-one cause of skin cancer, but UV light from tanning beds is just as harmful. Exposure to sunlight during the winter months puts you at the same risk as exposure during the summertime.

Cumulative sun exposure causes mainly basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer, while episodes of severe sunburns, usually before age 18, can cause melanoma later in life. Other less common causes are repeated X-ray exposure and occupational exposure to certain chemicals.

Brush up on Beauty

woman applying sunless tanner
Sunless Tanning Guide

How to choose and use the right product.

self tanning lotions
Get a Tan Without the Sun

Answers to your top faux tanning questions.

woman lying in tanning bed
Tanning Bed Dangers

What you need to know before baking indoors.

woman with face turned to sun
Makeup With SPF

Your favorite foundation has SPF. Can you skip sunscreen?

woman with flawless skin
Nourish Parched Skin

Try a Persian yogurt treatment for soft, supple skin.

young woman with bright face
Know How to Brighten Your Skin?

Peels, dermabrasion, lasers. Think you know which is best?

woman in sun on the beach
Soothe Your Sunburn

Too much time in the sun? This at home salve will calm red skin.

applying lip balm
Save Chapped Lips

Balm? Gloss? Repair a dry, damaged pout.

cellulite
Cellulite Solutions

Why you get it and what you can do.

rear view woman wearing towel
Adios Alligator Skin!

Easy ways to pamper dull, dry skin.

woman plucking eyebrows
Solutions for Unwanted Hair

Do you know how to get fuzz-free?

woman eating sushi
Surprising Ways to Reduce Wrinkles

9 secrets for smoother, supple skin.

URAC: Accredited Health Web Site HonCode: Health on the Net Foundation AdChoices