Preventing sunburn – why and how

The suntan doesn’t tell the whole story

I have just come back from a week away in the sun and everyone is complimenting me on my tan.

Man with sunburnSo that’s great, right?

What these people didn’t see was me last week with purple skin, a big red nose, shoulders that were too painful to carry my backpack, and a permanently headache from my sunburnt head.

So that’s not so great!

I live in London and for most of the year there is very little sunshine. In the summer we do get some, but I’m generally too busy to sit out in it.

I was scared I wouldn’t get a tan

So, like a lot of people who live in a similar climate, when I get the chance to get some sun on my skin I don’t want to miss it. Especially since I have very pale skin and it’s great to get a bit of colour into it.

And that’s the problem. I went away for my sunshine holiday full of good intentions about not going outside between 12pm and 4pm, and wearing high sun protection factor cream, but by the middle of the week I had started to crack.

“Hey, it’s a bit cloudy today, what if I get to the end of the week and I don’t have a tan. That’s my chance for this year gone.”

So, what did I do? I went and sat on the beach in the middle of the day with no sun cream, and because it was a bit cloudy and a bit windy I got roasted.

It was agony! My skin was on fire, I felt sick, and most of all I felt stupid. Bright pink is not a good look.

The next day I stayed out of the sun since it was all so painful, but that only made things worse. I was afraid I had missed a day in the sun, so the day after I went for it again. How red can one guy get?

So all this made me think about how to avoid getting sunburnt. I hear all the public information stuff about it, but I wanted to look a bit deeper into it.

What is sunburn?

Our bodies only really have one response to injury and that is inflammation. If someone slaps you hard enough you get a red handprint on your skin (especially if it’s as pale as mine). That’s inflammation.

When you get sunburn the same thing happens and your skin goes red due to the inflammation. In French when they have sunburn they say, “J’ai atrappé un coup de soleil”, which means “I have caught a blow from the sun”. See, it means the sun hit me!

As you may know, there are four signs of inflammation: redness, swelling, heat, and pain. Wow, did I just describe sunburn?

The ultra violet (UV) radiation in the sun’s rays produce this injury. It isn’t the heat of the sun’s rays, which is caused by infra red (IR) radiation. That’s one of the reasons why we can get burnt on what seems like quite a cool day.

Why do we get ourselves sunburnt?

Most people would agree that the reason we get sunburn is because we want to get a tan.

Our skin responds to the UV rays by producing more of a pigment chemical called melanin. This is designed to protect our skin cells from being damaged by the UV radiation.

The process starts as soon as our skin is exposed to the sun, and takes about three days to really get going, which produces the tan we wanted all along.

Unfortunately, unless you’re careful, before you go a golden brown you could go a lobster red
Why is sunburn bad for us?

Without going into the specifics of why sunburn is bad for us, it’s pretty clear than injuring ourselves in this way is not going to be good. In actual fact it’s self-harm, isn’t it?

Here’s a little list of ways that sunburn is bad.

It’s uncomfortable

I’ve already talked about how uncomfortable, or even painful sunburn can be. However, we know that it is only temporary and that in a few days it will the red skin will have turned brown, and it’s a price we’re willing to pay. So what else is there.

It causes premature ageing of the skin

Even low doses of the UV radiation in sunlight can cause biological processes to be activate in the skin causing damage to skin collagen (which give the skin its strength) and elastin (which give the skin its elasticity). This means that over time, exposing our skin to sunlight can cause the wrinklesd appearance associated with long term exposure to the sun.

It can cause skin cancer

Skin cancer, for most people, is the most worrying potential adverse effect of the sun’s rays. UV radiation can damage the DNA in skin cells in a similar way to cigarette smoke in lung cells, leading to cancer.

As a result of the DNA damage cells can start to divide when they normally wouldn’t, and the damage can accumulate until the cells become cancerous.

Probably the best know form of skin cancer is Malignant Melanoma, since it is the most dangerous, but there are other types, such as Basal and Squamous Cell Carcinoma.

Sunburn causes long-term problems

So, even though the list above is very short, the risks associated with sunburn are very serious.

We could think that sunburn is a short-term problem that will get better in a day or so, but there is evidence that even one episode of sunburn many years earlier could lead to the development of skin cancer.

That means we have to think about how to avoid getting burned by the sun in the first place.

5 ways to avoid getting sunburn

Don’t stress about getting a tan

This is probably the main thing that causes people to get burned by the sun. I know it’s the main reason I do. Almost everyone knows that exposing their skin to the sun for too long without protection will cause sunburn, but it’s risk they may be prepared to take to get a sun tan.

This is particularly true of people (again, like me) who only get a short amount of time in the sun each year. This can make you feel under pressure to get a sun tan, since it will probably be your last chance that year.

So don’t do it.

Avoid the sun

Getting a little bit of sun gradually, while using proper sun protection, and avoiding the hottest parts of the day is the standard advice.

Little and gradual exposure to the sun avoids the skin injury that is sunburn, and gives the skin a chance to respond to the sun by increasing melanin production and producing a tan. It’s also more likely that a tan obtained like this will last longer because the skin isn’t responding to an injury, which causes the skin to flake as it’s shed faster.

The strength of the sun as it relates to the UV radiation that causes sun tanning (and burning) is measured using the UV index.
The UV index goes from zero (0) to eleven plus (11+). Zero means there is no chance of being burnt and eleven plus means there is an extreme risk.

There is an interesting article about UV index on Wikipedia, which shows the UV index for New York City at different times of day during different times of year. A UV index level of three or above presents some danger of burning if we stay out in it too long, and in New York the UV level is above three on clear days between 9am and 3pm and between April and October.

The information above about the sun in New York might be quite surprising. But I’ve been burned by the sun on a cloudy March day in England just because I was out all day sailing.

Wear sun protection

The level of sun protection factor (SPF) available seems to get bigger every year as people take the potential skin damage caused by the sun. It doesn’t seem so long ago that factor four or eight was really protective, now factor 40 or 50 is quite normal.

The sun protection in sunscreen and sunblock products is usually based on chemicals that absorb UV radiation or particles that reflect UV. The more of these chemicals there are in the sunscreen the more protection they provide.

Again, the fear of not getting a tan can mean we don’t wear as much sunscreen as we should. Worse still, we might not wear any. Men are particularly guilty of this one.

Eat antioxidant vitamins

A lot of the information available on diet and sunburn is just speculation, but there is actual research evidence that some vitamins can protect us from sunburn.

It seems that taking fairly high doses of vitamin C and vitamin E together can reduce the inflammation associated with sunburn.

Although these vitamins have other functions, they are often described as anti-oxidants. This means they can neutralise some of the nasty chemicals that are produced when the sun injures our skin, and reduces the sunburn response.

There is also some speculation that these anti-oxidant vitamins could reduce the long-term skin damage caused by exposure to the UV radiation in sunlight.

Springer’s final thoughts on sunburn :)

So there we are. Sunburn is no fun, and can actually cause some very serious health problems. For most people it’s totally avoidable if we can just relax a little about getting a tan and take sensible precautions.

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