Surprising ways you may be getting sun-damaged skin

by Kaiser Permanente Kaiser Permanente |
Young person sitting by a sunny window

Make coffee. Eat breakfast. Brush your teeth. Take a shower.

This typical morning routine is missing an important step: Put on sunscreen.

Why should you wear it every day? Because sun-damaged skin may be sneaking up on you.

You know you and your family should wear sunscreen before spending a long afternoon outdoors. But sun damage is cumulative. Short periods of unprotected sun exposure add up over time, eventually leading to visible damage to your skin and a higher risk of skin cancer.

What is sun damage?

Sun damage, or photoaging, is when ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun prematurely ages your skin. There are 2 kinds of UV light — UVA and UVB. UVA light damages skin at all levels, from the surface to the deepest layer, breaking down collagen and elastin fibers. UVB light damages the outer layer of skin and your DNA, which can lead to cancer. A simplified way to remember the difference is that UVA rays are aging and UVB rays are burning. If you have darker skin, it’s less likely to burn — but it can still be damaged by UVA rays.

Signs of sun-damaged skin include:

  • Broken capillaries, usually around the nose
  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Pigmentation changes, such as age spots and brown patches of discoloration (known as melasma)
  • Red blotches
  • Uneven skin texture
  • Wrinkles

Ways you may be getting sun damage

Direct sun exposure occurs anytime you’re outdoors unprotected. Indirect sun exposure is when something is partially protecting you from the sun, like a window. If you’re not wearing adequate sunscreen, these exposures add up and lead to lasting sun damage.

"People are running errands — 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there — or walking their dog, and they’re not taking into consideration the cumulative, short bursts that they’re getting," says Sarah Adams, MD, a dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California. "All of the sudden, they’ve been outside for an hour and a half and they haven’t worn any sunscreen or any sun protection."

Surprising examples of sun exposure include:

  • Short trips outdoors, like walking from a parking lot to a building
  • Being under shade, like an umbrella
  • Clouds covering the sun
  • Sitting next to a window — including in your home office, working at a drive-thru, or traveling in a car, bus, or airplane

And yes, you read that last one right — you should even wear sunscreen when you’re home all day if you’re near a window. Windows usually block UVB rays, but not UVA rays.

"When I see patients in clinic, I notice more photoaging — more dark marks, more pigmentation — often affecting the left side of their face," Dr. Adams says. "I can often tell that someone was a driver versus a passenger because of the amount of sun damage that there is on one side of their face versus the other."

Your skin can also become more sensitive to the sun if you’re on certain medications or skin products — so take extra care to protect yourself. Read the labels or check with your doctor if you’re using:

  • Acne medications like Accutane
  • Antibiotics, particularly tetracyclines
  • Some birth control pills
  • Some heart medications for arrhythmia
  • Topical skin products such as retinols, glycolic acid, and other alpha hydroxy acids

How to protect your skin from sun damage

Use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher on yourself and your kids every day to prevent sun damage. Look for a broad-spectrum formula, which protects from both UVA and UVB light. Encourage your teens and older kids to use it daily, too.

Besides your face, be sure to apply sunscreen to commonly overlooked areas, such as your ears, the sides and back of your neck, the V of your chest, and the backs of your hands.

Get fast, easy coverage by wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses. Invest in clothes with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) for extra protection.

Limit how much time you and your family spend outdoors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. But remember, UV rays can be a concern anytime the sun is up. Use your smartphone’s weather app to check the current UV index. If it’s 3 or higher, you should protect your skin.

Some good news — you don’t need to reapply sunscreen throughout the day if you’re not sweating or swimming. Just make it part of your daily morning routine.

Get help with sun damage

To learn more about how to prevent or care for sun-damaged skin, talk to your doctor. They can recommend treatments, check suspicious spots, and refer you to a dermatologist, if needed.

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