It's Sunburn Season—Get the FACTS About Sun Exposure
Back in the spring I talked about sunscreen, skin cancer, and how the science behind the sun exposure fearmongering is far from cut and dried. For instance, several studies have found that regular sunscreen users are more likely to get melanomas than people who don’t use any. Other studies have found that people who work outdoors have lower melanoma rates than people with indoor jobs. And of course there is the issue of sunscreen itself—chemical sunscreens are loaded with toxins and your skin is the perfect delivery system.
Amidst all the conflicting science, one thing does seem fairly uncontroversial: it appears that the thing that really affects your risk of skin cancer isn’t your overall sun exposure. It’s how often and how badly you’ve suffered sun burn. The more times you’ve burned, and the worse the burn has been, the more likely you are to develop skin cancer at a later date. And the more sunburns you get at a young age, the higher the risk too.
So today I want to talk not about sun exposure but sunburn—what happens when you burn, how you can avoid it, and how to treat it when you do.
Sun “burn” isn’t REALLY a burn
Unless you live in a cave, you’ve probably had a sunburn at some point in your life. It hurts. Your skin gets very hot. It turns pink, or red. If it’s very severe it can become almost purple. You may develop watery blisters. If you have a bad sunburn, your skin often peels off in great itchy sheets as it heals. But here’s something that may surprise you: a sunburn really isn’t a burn. It has nothing to do with the sun’s heat, and it causes a completely different type of damage than a real heat-induced burn.
The symptoms of what we call sunburn are actually a toxic reaction to radiation—in this case, ultraviolet radiation. The pain, redness, and even swelling that we see with sunburns is actually severe inflammation. This is why we often don’t realize we’re getting sunburned until hours after we’ve come in from outdoors—it may take four to six hours for the inflammation to reach its peak. And why does sun exposure cause inflammation in the first place? It’s the body’s attempt to repair the damage caused by too much ultraviolet radiation.
Here’s what actually happens when you get sunburned
Sunlight has two different types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA and UVB. UVB only penetrates the outer portion of your skin. UVB penetrates to the deepest layers. It’s UVB that breaks down your skin’s collagen and leads to premature skin aging and wrinkles. Both types of UV radiation can cause sunburn, though you burn much faster with UVA.
The damage caused by too much ultraviolet radiation causes a variety of chemical changes in your skin. As your body begins to register that it’s being injured, your immune system kicks in and tries to minimize the damage. Blood vessels dilate, blood flow to your skin increases, and immune cells rush to the area. Your skin gets red and hot…and painful. Sometimes it even swells.
In the outer layer of skin, cells which are damaged quickly die and eventually slough off, which is what’s happening when your sunburn starts to peel. But the deeper layers of skin can’t simply be shed--your body has no alternative but to try and heal the damage. This is why blisters form.
Sunburn blisters occur when both the superficial and the deep layers of skin are injured. Plasma leaks out of the injured dermis, the deeper skin, and is trapped under the dead outer layer, the dermis. When you have sunburn blisters, they mean that your body is trying to protect the injured deep skin while it heals.
And UV radiation doesn’t just cause skin cells to die—it actually damages their DNA. Your body does a pretty good job of repairing this damage, but the worse you’re burned and the more often it happens, the more likely your body is to miss things or make a mistake. And the bits of damaged DNA that are overlooked add up eventually, making you more likely to develop skin cancer.
When it comes to the sun, the dose really does make the poison
While we’ve had sun-avoidance drummed into our heads for the past two decades, here’s the thing: Your body needs UVB to make vitamin D. So it’s important that you do get some sun, unhampered by UVB-blocking sunscreen. The key is to get enough sun for your body to make vitamin D—which the bulk of the population is now deficient in, thanks to overzealous sun exposure warnings—but not so much that you get sunburned.
But how much sun is too much depends on a lot of factors—the color of your skin, the time of year, the time of day, even your geographical location. The fairer your skin, the closer you are to the equator, and the hotter the season, the more likely you are to get sunburned. And of course the hotter the season the more skin you’re likely to expose. I suggest starting out with 10 minutes of unprotected sun exposure, then increasing the time in five minute increments until you find the maximum amount of time you can spend in the sun.
If you do get sunburned, the most important thing you can do is to let your body do its job and heal itself. This means don’t pop blisters or scratch them, no matter how much they itch. Blisters, like scabs, are Mother Nature’s bandage, meant to protect you from infection. There are, however, a few home remedies that can lessen the discomfort of sunburn.
Aloe vera is probably the most effective treatment—though I’m skeptical of commercial preparations that just contain aloe extract. If you have access to an aloe vera plant, however, it can both soothe the heat and pain of a sunburn and help your skin heal faster. Break off a mature leaf, split it open, and gently rub the gel-like inside of the leaf all over your sunburned skin. Repeat as often as necessary.
Both apple cider vinegar and green tea may be effective when used as a compress on sunburned skin. And pureed cucumbers or mashed strawberries contain substances which soothe sunburn when applied. Simply pop a cuke or a handful of berries in the blender and puree. Then apply to the sunburn, let it sit for five to ten minutes, and rinse off with cool water.
The sun isn’t really our enemy. Avoiding the sun just isn’t good for your health. Avoiding sun burn, on the other hand, is essential.
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