What you need to know about photoaging & skin cancer

Over 80% of all skin cancers are caused by over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or sunbeds.  This means that the majority of skin cancers are preventable by undertaking simple sun safety measures. In this blog, we look at photodamage, which develops over years by unprotected exposure to the sun and can lead to skin cancer

What you need to know about photoaging (sun damage) and skin cancer

We all know that a sunburn takes a toll on our skin in the short term and that your skin will prematurely age with unprotected exposure to the sun. But there is also a longer-lasting effect that the sun’s rays have on our skin, called photodamage (or photoaging) which describes the long-term cumulative effect of the sun on your skin over a number of years which can lead to skin cancer.  Photodamage is responsible for 90% of visible changes to the skin1.

Example of photoaging on skin


Image courtesy of Epiphany Dermatology

What is the difference between chronological aging and photoaging?

Photoaging is different from normal aging, which is due to age and your genetics. Photoaging is photodamage that develops over years by unprotected exposure to the sun. How can you tell the difference between normal aging and photoaging on your skin? Compare skin on an area of your body that is not normally exposed to the sun on a regular basis to skin that is regularly exposed, and you will be able to see the effects of photodamage.

What causes photoaging?

Photoaging happens when the sun rays emit ultraviolet radiation (UV) which hits skin unprotected by sunscreen which then causes DNA changes at a cellular level in the deepest layers of the skin (the dermis).

UV penetration into the layers of the skin

This damage can take years to surface and therefore become visible.  Sun protection will slow down photoaging and prevent photodamage, which can start to become visible in your early twenties.  

Artificial UV light (from sunbeds) can be even more damaging, causing accelerated photoaging. So if you are thinking of getting a sunbed tan, please don’t unless you want to increase your risk of photoaging and also skin cancer (find out more about the damage of sunbeds on your skin and increased skin cancer risk here).

What are the signs of photoaging on your skin?

Photodamage is responsible for changes in your skin which normally appear as the following symptoms:  

  • Wrinkling
  • Pigmentation changes such as age spots (solar lentigo) and freckles
  • Loss of skin tone (decreased elasticity) 
  • Rough, uneven skin texture
  • Broken capillaries (spider veins), usually around the nose and chest
  • Redness and blotchiness

Image shows skin pigmentation on the chest area

Skin pigmentation

Image shows age spots and freckles

Sun spots freckles

Image courtesy of apt Medical Ashetics

What skin types are most susceptible to photoaging? 

Everyone is susceptible to photoaging. However, the level of photodamage that you have depends on how much-unprotected sun exposure you have had over a period of time.  As a general rule, the fairer your skin, the more susceptible you are to photoaging.  Darker skin tones can also be photodamaged and will typically develop uneven dark patches (melasma).  Dermatologists, plastic surgeons, and skincare professionals use the Fitzpatrick Skin Types Scale as a tool to classify your skin type and colour, you can find out more about this tool here. 

How can you prevent photoaging?

Over 80% of all skin cancers are caused by over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or sunbeds. This means that the majority of skin cancers are preventable by undertaking simple sun safety measures.  

It is never too late to prevent further photodamage to your skin by using sun protection and not using sunbeds.  We recommend that you choose a high SPF, if you’re fair-skinned you will need an SPF 30 +, and choose a sunscreen product with a superior UVA 4-5 star rated protection symbol. If you would like more information on choosing the right sunscreen and understanding UVA protection, then click here.

If you are worried about skin cancer, Check4Cancer offers SkinCheck, a skin cancer screening service for anyone aged 18+ who would like the appearance of their skin or moles checked by a skin cancer specialist. Early detection saves lives, book your skin cancer test online today.  


1 https://www.skincancer.org/blog/photoaging-what-you-need-to-know/