Effects of Early Sun Exposure

Last Updated June 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

There is a direct link between sun exposure and most skin cancers. The ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight are invisible. But they penetrate skin and damage it. A sunburn is actual damage to your skin. Doctors know that sun exposure can cause skin cancer. Research shows that getting sunburned at a young age puts you at even greater risk for skin cancer as you get older.

Even one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double your chances of developing melanoma. The more sunburns you get, the greater your risk of skin cancer. This includes melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. In fact, five or more sunburns more than doubles your risk for melanoma.

Other forms of skin cancer include basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. However, skin cancer is the most preventable and treatable of cancers.

Beyond sun exposure, your chances of developing skin cancers depend on other factors, too, including physical traits. For example, if you have red hair and fair skin, your skin cancer risk increases. This is also true if you are more susceptible to sunburns in general, or have a higher number of moles, according to the study.

Path to improved health

Parents must be committed to protecting children from sun exposure. They also much teach their adolescent children to continue smart sun protection. Daily sun protection is key, not just while kids are at the pool or beach.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers these tips for protecting your child from the sun:

Made in the shade. Try to avoid being outside in the middle of the day, when the sun’s UV rays are their strongest. This is when sun does the most damage. If your child has to be outside during this time, try to keep them in the shade of a tree or umbrella.

Cover up. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants provide good protection from the sun. The tighter weave of the fabric, the better. Darker clothes may offer better sun protection. You also may consider looking for clothing that offers a UV protection factor.

Grab a hat. A hat can offer some great sun protection. Choose one with a wide, circular brim. This not only will protect your child’s face, but will protect his or her neck and ears, too. If you choose a baseball-styled cap, be sure to remember to use sunscreen on your child’s ears and neck.

Wear sunglasses. The sun doesn’t just threaten your skin, it threatens your eyes, as well. UV rays can cause cataracts later in life. Look for children’s sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays.

Remember the sunscreen. If your child is going to be outside, always use sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen that is at least 30 SPF. A sunscreen that is 30 SPF will block 97% of the sun’s UV rays. Maximize protection by applying sunscreen at least 30 minutes before your child is going to be outside. After a couple of hours, or if spending time in the water, be sure to reapply sunscreen.

Things to consider

There is no such thing as a healthy tan. Tanned skin is damaged skin. Even if you don’t get a sunburn, you are still doing damage to your skin and increasing your risk of skin cancer.

Tanning beds are not safer than being out in the sun. People who use tanning beds are at great risk for developing skin cancer. In fact, some reports estimate that the risk increases by 75% for people who use a tanning bed before the age of 35.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more people develop skin cancer because of tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking.

When to see a doctor

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. The earlier you spot it, the easier it is to cure. Warning signs include:

  • A mole or any brown spot that changes over time—changes in color, texture, or size
  • Moles or spots that appear after adolescence
  • Skin growths that are colored (black or brown) or that are translucent and increase in size
  • Any skin growth or mole that itches, crusts, or bleeds
  • Any skin growth or mole that hurts

An easy way to remember to check your skin is the ABCDE method:

  • A is for Asymmetry: One half of the mole does not match the other half.
  • B is for Border irregularity: The edges are ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • C is for Color that varies from one area to another.
  • D is for Diameter: While melanomas are usually greater than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
  • E is for Evolving: A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape, or color. 

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Is sunlight a good source of vitamin D?
  • Is there a way to predict if I will develop skin cancer?
  • Can I reverse the damage caused by UV exposure?
  • Can genetics make me less at risk for skin cancer?
  • Does a family history of skin cancer put me more at risk?
  • How often should I do a self-check for skin cancer?
  • What should I do if I suspect a spot on my skin could be cancerous?
  • What is the treatment process for skin cancer?

American Academy of Dermatology: Skin Cancer: Everyone’s At Risk
American Cancer Society: Skin Cancer
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Basic Information About Skin Cancer
National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: Sun Exposure


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