Skin Sun Damage – Symptoms and Pictures

In search of that perfect hue, many of us turn to the sun for a free tan. But it is not entirely without a price. It is now known that the sun can often do more harm than good. Just being outdoors for 20 minutes or more in intense direct sunlight has an adverse effect on the skin. But this is no reason to avoid the sun entirely. As humans we need sunlight to produce essential micro-nutrients like vitamin D. The key is to find the balance between enough sun exposure and too much. Unfortunately many people are not able to spot the signs of excessive sun exposure until it is too late – sometimes only when the most serious of sun-related conditions like skin cancer develops.

Tips of Preventing Sun Damage

The past two decades has seen more media attention focusing on the detrimental effects of the sun, especially when it comes to skin cancers like malignant melanoma. But these types of skin cancers do not occur overnight. There is a gradual damage of the skin, over months and even years. While medical authorities have focused on educating the public about the detrimental effects of the sun, many people still overdo it until the first signs and symptoms of sun damage appear.

Never wait. Take action immediately in reducing your sun exposure and preventing sun damage to the skin.

  • Try to stay in the shade and limit your time in the sun between 10AM and 3PM.
  • Avoid sunburn at all costs. It can increase your risk of skin cancer even decades later.
  • Wear protective clothing. Long-sleeved clothing may be uncomfortable on a hot sunny day but it can prevent sunburn.
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection.
  • Sunscreen should be applied daily even if you do not plan to spend the day in the sun. Lower protection like an SPF 15 may be suitable if you are going to be in the sun for just a short period but if you plan to spend hours in the sun then you need SPF30 or higher.
  • Avoid UV  tanning booths and beds. It may not seem as strong as sunlight but it can be just as damaging.

Symptoms of Sun Damage

Most of us know what sun damaged skin looks like when it is severe. However, we fail to identify the minor or subtle signs. It is important to know that a suntan, wrinkles and freckles that are darkening are signs of too much sun. In fact a suntan is actually due to the outermost layer of the skin being damaged. Wrinkles will occur with age but sun exposure can hasten the onset and worsen the situation.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of sun damage that may be present when you are out in the sun or just after being in the sun. The symptoms can persist for minutes or even hours after getting out of the sun. Some signs and symptoms may only develop over days and weeks and persist for months or longer.

  • Redness of the skin
  • Burning, stinging and itching
  • Uneven skin tone
  • Dark patches or spots on the skin
  • Skin lesions (abnormalities like uneven moles and ulcers)

sun tan


Melasma is a skin condition where brown to black patches form on the skin. These are areas of hyperpigmentation (darkening due to excess melanin). The exact cause is unknown. Although this condition is mainly associated with genetic factors, hormonal changes in women and certain cosmetics, sun exposure is believed to play a central role in melasma. The patches tend to form on the areas that experience the most sun exposure, like the face and arms.


Solar Lentigo

Solar lentigo is a skin condition where there are brown small spots on the skin that may merge into larger patches. It is also known as age spots or liver spots. There are different types of lentigo but in solar lentigo the lesions occur on the sun exposed areas of the skin. It appears very similar to freckles but does not darken immediately after sun exposure. These lesions should be monitored regularly as certain types of skin cancers may appear similar to solar lentigo in the early stages.

Solar Purpura

Solar purpura is a condition where sun exposure and aging causes weakening of the skin leading to easy bruising and bleeding under the skin. It is mainly seen in the elderly and has no link to skin cancer like with other skin conditions caused by skin cancers. The arms are most commonly affected although it can also occur on other parts of the body. Understandably the sun-exposed areas are the most prone. Chronic sun exposure causes gradual weakening of the blood vessels until it reaches a point where even the slightest injury causes bleeding.

Actinic Keratosis

Actinic keratosis is where rough scaly patches form on the skin as a result of years of sun exposure. It is also known as solar keratosis and a small number of cases may develop into skin cancer. The lesions tend to appear on the areas of the body receiving the greatest sun exposure like the face and arms. The condition is more often seen in older people but may be a consequence of sun exposure starting from much earlier in life. It has also been linked to excessive use of UV tanning beds.

solar keratosis

Picture sourced from Dermatology Atlas Brazil

Actinic Cheilitis

Actinic cheilitis is a condition of the lips where the tissue has become damaged by sun exposure leading to inflammation and even ulceration. These lesions tend to occur on the vermilion of the lip and are usually benign but some can be pre-cancerous. It is also known as solar cheilitis or cheilosis. Smokers are more prone to developing this condition. Generally it is much more severe among cigarette smokers than non-smokers.  It is a result of years or even decades of sun exposure.

actinic cheilitis

Picture sourced from Dermatology Atlas Brazil

Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most severe consequence of sun exposure. It usually occurs with chronic sun exposure but even a few incidents of acute intense sun exposure leading to sunburn can be a cause. There are several different types of skin cancer with the main types being basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. As with any cancer, the problem lies in the damaged genetic material of the skin cells leading to abnormal and excessive growth of these cells.  Sun exposure is one important factor that can mutate the genetic material of the skin cells but cigarette smoking and hereditary factors among others also play an important role.


Picture of basal cell carcinoma from Dermatology Atlas Brazil


Picture of squamous cell carcinoma from Dermatology Atlas Brazil


Picture of malignant melanoma




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