The effects of sun damage on your skin and overall health can vary depending on the level of sun exposure you have had, your skin type, your age and a variety of other factors.
Sun damage can lead to cosmetic changes in your skin, such as premature ageing, wrinkles and discolouration. It can also lead to more serious conditions, like skin cancer.
Some of the more common effects of sun damage in Australia include:
Premature ageing of the skin
Sun damage to your skin can result in the development of fine lines and wrinkles, discolouration and textural changes. These cosmetic effects of sun damage can make your skin look prematurely aged and visibly damaged.
Fine lines and wrinkles
After years of sun exposure, the inner layers of the skin thicken and their ability to retain moisture is reduced. This can lead to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.These are particularly common around the eyes and mouths of middled-aged and older Australians.
The overactivity of tanning cells (melanocytes), caused by years of sun exposure, can result in the development of brown freckles, the growth of lesions known as solar lentigines and the appearance of small white marks about 2-5 millimetres in size, which are particularly common on shins and forearms.
Sun damage can also lead to changes in the texture of your skin – the way it feels when it is touched.
Years of sun damage can lead to the outer layer of the skin becoming thinner, meaning it easily blisters, tears and grazes.
At the same time, long term sun exposure can lead to the thicker, inner layers of the skin losing their elasticity. This can lead to the development of yellow, thickened bumps on parts of the skin that have endured the most sun exposure, like the back of the neck and hands.
Solar keratoses, or sun spots as they are more commonly known, are skin lesions that develop as a result of exposure to the sun's UV rays. The spots vary in size – from as small as 2 millimetres up to 20 millimetres across – and can be scaly or warty in their appearance. The colour of sun spots varies too, from a barely noticeable darkening in skin colour to a more obvious red.
They are very common on areas of the skin that are regularly exposed to the sun, particularly on the nose, cheeks, upper lip, temples, ears, forehead, neck and hands.
In some people, sun spots may be painful or itchy and might sting when they are exposed to sunlight or scratched.
In Australia, sun spots are particularly common in fair-skinned people and in those who have spent long periods of time outdoors without protecting their skin.
It is rare to find just one sun spot, usually the surrounding area is also damaged as the sun's rays affect all skin and not just the exposed sunspot.
While they can be uncomfortable and unsightly, sun spots are generally harmless. However, they can develop into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). In patients with more than 10 sun spots, there is a 10-15% chance of the patient developing skin cancer. As a result, sun spots are generally treated, both for cosmetic and health reasons.
Sun spots are considered a field disease, as most sun spots appear in a field of UV damaged skin cells which surround the individual visible sun spot.
Invisible sun spots (the ones found underneath the skin) are estimated to be 10 times more frequent than visible sun spots because all unprotected skin receives UV radiation.
People with sunspots should get them examined by a doctor on a regular basis.
As well as causing undesired cosmetic changes to your skin, sun damage can also lead to skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Australia and approximately two in three Australians will be diagnosed with a form of skin cancer before the age of 70.
Over 380,000 Australians are treated for skin cancer every year. This is the highest rate in the world.
Skin cancer is related to sun damage, particularly sunburn that occurred during childhood. It is also caused by long-term exposure to the sun's UV rays.
Each time your unprotected skin is exposed to the sun's UV rays, changes take place in the structure of your skin's cells. Too much exposure to these UV rays causes the skin to become permanently damaged. This damage affects the immune system in the skin, reducing its ability to identify and attack newly forming skin cancer cells.
The three main types of skin cancer in Australia are:
- Basal cell carcinoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common but least dangerous type of skin cancer. About three in four skin cancers in Australia are BCCs.
BCC generally affects adults with fair skin who have had a lot of sun exposure, or repeated cases of sunburn, over the course of their lives.
Unlike squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), which often arises within pre-existing sun spots, BCC generally develops in otherwise normal looking skin.BCCs typically appear as small, round lumps that are red, pale or pearly in colour. In some cases, they may also appear as a small area of red and scaly skin, similar to a patch of eczema.
BCCs tend to grow slowly, often over months or even years, and rarely spread to other parts of the body. They occur most often on the head, neck and upper torso, though they may appear on other parts of the body.
BCC is more common in the elderly, however some Australians will develop BCC in their twenties and thirties.
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a less common but more dangerous type of skin cancer than BCC.
SCCs generally arise within areas of sun spots and tend to appear as red, thickened, scaly spots which may bleed or ulcerate. They grow over weeks or months and can spread to lymph nodes and other parts of the body if not treated quickly.
SCCs most often appear on the head, neck, hands and forearms, though can grow on other parts of the body too.
SCC rarely presents in Australians under 40 years of age, and is more common in older age groups.
Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer.
It represents 10% of all cancers in Australia, with more than 10,300 cases diagnosed annually.
Melanoma usually occurs on parts of the skin that have been sun damaged. However, it can sometimes appear on skin or other parts of the body that have never been exposed to the sun.
In most cases, melanomas appear as a flat spot on the skin that changes in colour, shape and/or size over a period of time. If left untreated, this flat spot may become bigger, irregular in shape and darker in colour.
Melanoma is diagnosed more often in older adults with fair complexions but can occur in younger adults and teenagers.