A woman sitting outside on a bench soaking in the sun

A “healthy glow,” rumored to have been popularized by Coco Chanel in the 1920s, is why many bask in the summer sun without sun protection. Some even add oils to speed up the process. However, as scientists discover more about our relationship with the sun, the question to grapple with when it comes to tanning is: At what cost?

The Problem With Sun Exposure

The Sun’s Effect on Skin

What’s the big deal about getting some sun? Both invisible and visible rays from the sun penetrate our skin upon exposure, damaging DNA and altering the way our cells regenerate. Over an extended period, this can lead to skin cancer, the most common kind of cancer found in the United States. 

Both invisible and visible rays from the sun penetrate our skin upon exposure.

Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, was on one of the earliest Harvard dermatology teams researching the impact of UVA radiation. In an interview with Darling, she explained that there are three kinds of rays currently known to impact our health: UVB, UVA and high-energy visible light (HEV) rays. 

UVB Rays

With the shortest wavelength, UVB rays are responsible for the acute reactions we associate with sun exposure, such as sunburns. UVB rays are also associated with superficial skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. 

UVA Rays

UVA rays have a longer wavelength, penetrating deeper and causing pigment cell changes. Remember that tan from your beach vacation? That’s most likely from UVA rays, which also have long-term effects on your skin. Not only do UVA rays impact how your skin appears cosmetically, but these rays are also associated with the deadliest kind of cancer, melanoma

HEV Rays

These rays have the longest wavelength and deepest penetration of the three, and they’re known as “blue light.” While there’s not yet substantial evidence associating HEV exposure with cancer, these rays have been shown to cause pigmentation, redness and inflammation. There is reasonable speculation that HEV rays may be more damaging than UVA and UVB rays. The growing concern is the average person’s extended exposure, not from the sun but from electronic devices. 

The Sun’s Effect on Eyes

Have you ever been told to avoid looking at the sun? Have you seen sunglasses that provide UV protection? Have you come home from a day out at the beach feeling dry-eyed? That’s because our eyes are sensitive to the sun and can be damaged by excessive exposure. You got that right. Your eyes can get sunburned too. 

Our eyes are sensitive to the sun and can be damaged by excessive exposure.

Dr. Christina Grupcheva, M.D., Ph.D., DSc, FEBO, FICO(Hon), FBCLA, FIACLE, is a leading ophthalmologist in the research on UV damage to the eyes. In an interview with Darling, she explained that, “Although the public is aware of damaging effects of the UV on the skin, not many people are cautious about harmful effects on the eyes.” 

There are three types of damage caused by UV light, according to Dr. Grupcheva: visual, perceptual and cosmetic. Visual discomfort comes when the quality of our vision is impacted by UV exposure. This can look like blurriness and spottiness. Perceptual discomfort is the irritation or grittiness felt after a long day out in the sun. Cosmetic discomfort is visible to others, such as redness, and is another effect of too much UV exposure. 

Some damage from UV rays is temporary and goes away after a few days. However, this ability to regenerate shouldn’t be taken for granted, as recovery depends on many factors. Extended UV radiation can also increase the risks of long-term damage such as cataracts, pterygiums and macular degeneration. 

The Sun’s Effect on the Brain 

A recent study published by the University of Copenhagen suggests that prolonged simulated sun exposure and overheating of the brain can significantly inhibit our motor-cognitive performance. While his recent study was small, it is expected to lead to even more findings for our long-term brain health. 

The Damage Is Getting Worse

In her 40 years as a dermatologist, Dr. Ciraldo has seen a worrisome increase in sun-related issues coming from younger generations. 

“I’m seeing such a shift in both aging changes, and unfortunately, the onset of precancerous spots in younger people,” she says. “I used to see the women coming in by their late 30s. Now, I’m seeing women in their 20s who have these problems—whether they’re health-related or more cosmetic.”

Where is the shift coming from? The climate crisis. The environment is changing, increasing the levels of pollution we live in and the intensity of rays we are exposed to. Our unsustainable human habits also play a role in sun damage to our skin.

Our unsustainable human habits also play a role in sun damage to our skin.

Where Do We Go From Here? 

The facts surrounding sun damage can be overwhelming, but awareness is the first step to change. Now that we know the truth, how do we mitigate the damage? Certainly not by avoiding the sun altogether.

Sunlight brings us important mental and physical benefits, such as melatonin regulation and serotonin boosts. With the right tools and information, we can get the best out of sunlight without getting the worst. To get practical suggestions for reducing sun damage and increasing vitamin D intake, look out for our breakdown in Pt. 2 of “The Truth About Sun Damage.” 

How well-informed would you say you are about sun damage? Would you be willing to make adjustments to your skincare routine to benefit your overall health?

Image via Chris and Sarah Rhoads of We Are the Rhoads, Darling Issue No. 11

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