Alas, those of us in the upper decades of life knew little in our younger years about the risks of sun damage beyond the need to avoid a bad sunburn. Many youngsters like me swam, hiked, biked and played sports minimally clothed while the sun tanned or burned our skin. We sunbathed coated in baby oil in a misguided effort to acquire a rich tan. And many of us, myself included, failed to reach adulthood with sun-protective habits that could have prevented the skin damage now woefully apparent.
Given that the risk of ultraviolet light to healthy skin has since been widely publicized, I’m astonished at how many people today visit tanning salons or use tanning beds at home, damaging the wholesome cutaneous barrier nature gave us.
Happily, the new study suggests that more people now have a greater understanding and respect for the sun’s effects on skin and can look forward to a healthier future, said Dr. Sangeeta Marwaha, a dermatologist in Sacramento and co-author of the study. Among people who entered the study in 2018, the risk of developing skin cancer was two-thirds that of study entrants in 2008 who were followed for an equal number of years.
“There’s been an increase in sun-protective habits and a resulting decrease in the development of skin cancer,” Dr. Marwaha said in an interview. “Parents today are more likely to protect their children from undue sun exposure, and the use of sunscreen is now more mainstream.”
But there’s still a long way to go. Fostering a healthy respect for sun protection in young children is especially important because some experts estimate that up to 80 percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure is acquired before age 18.
Repeated exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation causes most of the skin changes — wrinkles, age spots and tiny broken blood vessels — generally considered a normal result of aging. Yes, aging plays a role, but these effects occur much earlier in life on sun-exposed skin. UV light damages the elastin fibers in skin, causing it to stretch, sag and wrinkle. It also damages surface blood vessels, rendering them more fragile and easily bruised.
And Zachary W. Lipsky, a biomedical engineer at Binghamton University, found that UV radiation weakens the bonds that help the cells in the top layer of skin stick together, damaging the skin’s structural integrity and leaving it more vulnerable to infection.