Humans and Health

A Dummies Guide To… How Too Much Sun Can Lead to Skin Cancer, and How to Prevent It.

When summer comes around many cannot wait to bask in the sun and get a tan, yet few know why their skin tans and the dangers that accompany doing so.

When your skin tans, it is the body’s natural defence mechanism’s way to attempt to protect your body from harmful ultraviolet (UV) light rays. The body contains cells called melanocytes, and these are what produce the pigment melanin that causes your skin to tan, but also helps protect your body from UV rays.

“many people turn lobster red and are left sore and unhappy with sunburn”

Yet not everyone gets a lovely tan in the sun; many people turn lobster red and are left sore and unhappy with sunburn. Yet these surface symptoms are not the main problem caused by over exposure to UV light, for it is the damage that happens within your body that is the main problem. When your skin burns the DNA within your body’s cells gets damaged and causes cells to undergo apoptosis (fancy science word for die, so not exactly a good thing). However, not all damaged cells undergo apoptosis (yay… or not so yay). Those that survive can become cancerous and cause skin cancer, and if you have been burnt more than five times your chance of developing melanoma (a type of skin cancer) doubles.

“if you have been burnt more than five times your chance of developing melanoma doubles”

Furthermore, what is particularly scary about sunburn is that the effects of it are often felt well after the damage is done. This is because the UV light causes different proteins to be produced, such as cytokines, which cause the cells to become inflammatory around 4-6 hours after the damage is done. In addition to this, there are two different types of UV light: UVA and UVB. Both of these are dangerous and have long-term side effects that you cannot always detect straight away. UVA is known to cause photo aging of the skin, meaning that over exposure to UVA can cause the skin to become wrinkled, dry, to lose elasticity and form dark patches, all symptoms that are not immediately noticeable but will happen when the skin is damaged.  Whereas UVB causes the more noticeable symptoms, such as sunburn, and is the wavelength often talked about when speaking of the dangers of the sun.

But never fear, as there are many ways that you can protect yourself from the sun’s dangerous UV rays. Sun cream is an effective way to help prevent UV rays from damaging your body when applied as instructed, and there are two different types. Some sun creams are known as physical blockers; this is because they contain either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which reflect the sun’s harmful UV rays away from the body. The other type of sun cream are known as chemical blockers and contain chemicals such as amino benzoic acid that works by absorbing the UV rays. Both of these are effective in protecting yourself from the sun.

Other ways that you can help to protect yourself from the suns UV rays and potential damage to your body is to wear clothing that covers more of your skin. Hats that shields both your face and neck are also a great way to protect yourself, as these areas are more sensitive so likely to burn quicker. Likewise staying out of sunlight between 10am and 4pm, when the UV rays are at their strongest, will also be beneficial in protecting your health and staying safe in the sun this summer.

Kayleigh Moore

Featured image courtesy of Ramon Oromi via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image use license here.

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