How to Prevent Sunburns, Skin Cancer, and Aging | Tammy Nguyen, PharmD | RxEconsult

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Tips for Preventing Sunburns, Premature Aging, and Skin Cancer Category: Cancer by - October 25, 2013 | Views: 28958 | Likes: 1 | Comment: 0  

Sunburn, premature aging, skin cancer

What are sunburns?

Sunburns are superficial burns that can range from mild redness to tenderness and pain. Severe sunburns may lead to blisters as well as fevers, chills, weakness, and shock. Sunburns are caused by overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Sunburns may seem temporary, but can lead to long lasting damage to the skin.

What are risk factors for sunburn?

There are several factors that determine the degree of the sunburn. These include the type and quantity of UVR, skin color, and the thickness of the epidermis (outermost layer of the skin cells). For instance, fair individuals are more likely to experience sunburns than those with darker skin. Dark skin possesses more melanin than light skin and melanin provide some protection from sunburns. However, it does not completely prevent sunburns and has no protection from UVR damage. The sun’s UVR is able to penetrate deeply into the skin and cause serious damage to the skin’s DNA cells. Therefore, it is important to protect the skin from harmful sun rays regardless of skin color.

Another factor that plays a key role in sunburns is the epidermis. The epidermis is responsible for absorbing most of the UVR that hits the skin. Therefore, the thickness of the epidermis is an important aspect in determination of the degree of sunburn. The redness, swelling, and pain associated with a sunburn are caused by chemicals in the body that cause inflammation. The UVB radiation produces this redness by causing damage to the skin’s cellular DNA while the UVA radiation causes deeper tissue damage.

Lastly, the amount of time and the quantity of UVR exposure determines the severity of the sunburn. Therefore, it’s always best to avoid sun exposure when sun rays are strongest, use a broad spectrum sunscreen, and to limit exposure time. 

What is premature aging?

Premature aging is early aging to the skin such as yellowing, dryness, thickening, and wrinkling of the skin. Excess exposure to UVR can lead to breakdown of the skin due to the loss of the skin’s elasticity. This will lead to sun spots and premature wrinkling of the skin.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is caused by abnormal growth of skin cells. The three major types are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. A mole that is asymmetric in shape with a poorly defined border, different color variation or color change, new growth, and a diameter larger than 6 mm should be evaluated.

Tips on preventing sunburns, premature aging, and skin cancer

Try to avoid or minimize sun exposure

  • Avoid sun exposure, especially between 10 am to 4 pm since the rays are most damaging during this time of the day.
  • Avoid other sources of ultraviolet radiation such as tanning beds and sunlamps.
  • Sunburn occurs during cloudy days also. Make sure to still protect your skin since UVR is still able to penetrate clouds.
  • Try wearing protective clothing such as long sleeve shirts, pants, and a hat with a brim.
  • Make sure to wear sunglasses with proper UVR coverage to protect your eyes from the sun.

Use a Sunscreen

  • Everyone should use a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protective factor) of 15 or greater to receive the best protection. The FDA is currently working on a proposed regulation that would limit the maximum SPF value on sunscreen labeling to “SPF 50+” since there seems to be no added benefit when the SPF is more than 50. Learn more about sunscreens here.
  • Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen product (combinations of different sunscreen agents) since this provides the best protection against both UVA and UVB ranges. 
  • Avoid using tanning products even if they include a sunscreen. The contain minimal SPF so the skin can tan.
  • Apply sunscreen throughout the year and at any time during the day.
  • Make sure to apply sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure with approximately 1 ounce of sunscreen to each area of the body.
  • Reapply water-resistant sunscreens every 30 or 80 minutes (as directed on the product label) after swimming, sweating, or towel drying. For non water-resistant sunscreens or for water resistant products if you are not swimming or sweating, make sure to reapply every 2 hours.
  • Use a higher SPF sunscreen at higher altitudes or lower latitudes since there is an increase amount of UVR exposure.
  • Make sure to use higher SPF sunscreens, protect exposed skin, and wear sunglasses when in the snow or sand since they reflect UVR.
  • Make sure to wear sunscreen even when driving, since UVA is still able to penetrate the window glass.
  • Replace expired sunscreens and keep them out of direct sunlight.
  • Stop using the sunscreen if itching, redness, burning, or worsening sunburn occurs.
  • If you had a prior allergic reaction to sunscreens in the past, try avoiding ones with aminobenzoic acid derivatives, benzophenones, cinnamates, or meradimate. Try using another chemical sunscreen without those ingredients or switching to a physical sunscreen.
  • Avoid drugs that cause sun sensitivity

Read more about the different types of sunscreens for more information on the available sunscreens and how to choose the right sunscreen.

Also Read

Keytruda (pembrolizumab) Side effects, Cost, Approval and Prescribing Information for Melanoma 

Opdivo (nivolumab) Side effects, Cost, Approval and Prescribing Information for Advanced Melanoma 

More than Moles: Some Shocking, Surprising Signs of Skin Cancer


U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Sunscreen drug products for over-the-counter human use; final monograph; technical amendment. Fed Regist. 2002;67:41821-23.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA sheds lights on sunscreens. 2012.

Gonzaga ER. Role of UV light in photodamage, skin aging, and skin cancer. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2009;10:19-24. PubMed

Kullavanijaya P, Lim HW. Photoprotection. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;52:937-58. PubMed

Davidow LW. Self-Care and nonprescription pharmacotherapy. In: Berardi RR, ed in chief. Handbook of Nonprescription Drugs: An Interactive Approach to Self-Care. 17th ed. Washington DC: American Pharmacists Association; 2012.

Young AR, Walker SL. Acute and chronic effects of ultraviolet radiation on the skin. In: Wolff K, Goldsmith LA, Katz SI, et al., eds. Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine. 7th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2007.

Sunburns. The Skin Cancer Foundation. 2013.


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