Saving Your Skin: The Importance Of Sun Protection

Sunburn can be a nasty bit of business.  Report after report, and study after study tells us that children should be protected because early severe burns can manifest as serious skin issues later in life.  In the last three decades, rates of melanoma have doubled.

One study (available here) tells us that between half and three-quarters of children are sunburned annually.  Among melanoma survivors with children there is heightened awareness, because the risk for their children is double the average rate. 

Despite that, 28% of their children still get sunburns annually.  Even knowing the risk, these parents are not insuring that their children are continuously protected.

Taking the Sun Seriously

Beyond preventing erythema (skin reddening) and pain from a first-degree burn due to excessive sunlight, sunblock does more.  It can reduce the damage of second-degree burns from gross over-exposure, which causes physical damage to the deeper layers resulting in blistering and peeling.

That is not all, of course, because sunblock has additional effects and benefits going well beyond preventing the significant, though individually superficial, dermal injury.  It can prevent permanent skin damage, which is called photoaging, such as drying and wrinkling, from chronic exposure.  It prevents DNA damage and the resultant mutations, when used according to directions.  Sunscreen can therefore even prevent carcinogenesis (skin cancer).

Why Play in the Sun?

Most mammals and birds (the so-called warm-blooded group) don't have much direct need of the Sun aside from providing light.  Cold-blooded animals need it to provide body warmth so they can function since they do not make their own internal heat.

One exception in humans is that we need it to manufacture Vitamin D—an intrinsic function of the skin.  We need between 10 and 30 minutes of exposure of strong sunlight, on about a quarter of our body surface, three times per week.

Exposure time is highly dependent on skin color.  Those with light skin tones need a relatively short exposure and those with the darkest skin can require up to three times more to achieve the same effect.  And even though natural melanin offers some protection for darker-skinned people, don't believe for a moment that you shouldn't use a sun-blocking agent, too!  We'll talk about that more below…

Getting "Enough" but Not Too Much

For those of us in winter climates where we have cold temperatures and the need for heavy clothing, natural vitamin D can be impossible to obtain.  This is further complicated by the fact that the angle of the Sun is relatively low.  This means light has to pass through much more of our atmosphere which attenuates the light even more.  Many foods, most often dairy products, are enriched with vitamin D (and vitamin A, too) to help compensate, otherwise you will need supplements.

Three Kinds of Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation

There are three bands of UV called UVA, UVB, and UVC.  Fortunately, the most energetic and shortest frequency called UVC is stopped by the Earth's atmosphere.  UVB is partially blocked, and UVA is only slightly unimpeded. 

All forms of UV can cause cellular changes and alter DNA in sufficient quantity.  Recent research has concluded that sunburns are the quickest route to a very specific gene alteration that suppresses our ability to fight tumors.

You can think of UVB as the Burning type, and UVA as the Aging type.  UVB can only penetrate the first few layers of skin but brings enough energy to power the Vitamin D-making process.  It is also sufficient to cause burns and damage if we get too much.

UVA, on the other hand, has a much longer wavelength and penetrates to deeper layers in the skin.  This can alter DNA, too.

The Myth of Skin Color

Melanin only provides a limited amount of protection, though it's far better than what your average Northern European has.  Still, it does have its limitations.  Darker skinned people can experience about three times the exposure before becoming sunburned, but they are certainly not immune.

Experts are convinced in this study that heredity is partially responsible for the physically harmless condition called dermatosis papulosa nigra (DPN).  The same scientists contend it is also due to excessive sun exposure.  Limit or eliminate UV exposure and, in turn, limit the pathogenesis.

Of course "physically harmless" doesn't mean DPN is psychologically harmless—they are, after all, tumors/lesions, even if they are completely benign.  They can be treated, but wouldn't it be better if they never arose in the first place?  Of course, so (we say it again) everyone should use sunscreen.

What is Photoaging?

Premature aging of the skin is (was) a fairly common occurrence until the age of the Internet.  Suddenly, lots of information became available and people started to pay attention.  Slowly at first, but the trend has been gaining momentum for a couple of decades now.  Peer pressure is hard to resist, especially for adolescents that want to show off their physiques, but wisdom seems to be coming at an earlier age.  More young people are using sunscreen on a regular basis.

People have far fewer "brown spots" nowadays; the wrinkles around the eyes are becoming less pronounced; "laugh lines" are diminishing.  Sure, some is due to Botox-poisoning that people use (usually actors) to paralyse muscles so that lines don't worsen.  However, a lot of it is because we're taking better care of ourselves, and starting to do so much sooner in our lives, because the information is available.


  • Darkly pigmented spots, typically on the back of the hands, shoulders, chest, but any area not usually covered;
  • Eye wrinkles, mouth wrinkles, forehead "frown lines" that are permanent;
  • Creases and cracks;
  • Spider-like veins around the nose, and sometimes in the cheeks, or on the neck;
  • Floppy skin that has lost much of its elastin, which normally keeps it tight, smooth, and contiguous to the underlying features;
  • Keratoses may appear, too, as rough, red, or scaly patches that warn of a pre-cancerous state that needs medical attention.


The Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is a powerful motivator. This is what happens when we get so caught up in looking "healthy", with a "golden glow", but we're afraid to look "orange" with a simulated tan (like some people in the public eye).  Dashing out to the beach to "catch some rays" without sunscreen is probably one of the least healthy things we can do—especially for those with very light skin.

Right up there, though, is the notion of going to a "tanning salon" where you can never be sure about the UV-generating tubes they are using.  Do they produce the particularly harmful UVC or UVA in addition to the UVB that you're actually paying for? 

Do they change the tubes regularly, long before they "burn out", to make sure they are only producing what they claim?   Or do they save every penny and run them until they sputter to a stop?  Do the timers work?  Do they allow you to do "double sessions", or do it two days in a row?  All these things can lead to overexposure.

Reality Sets In

Unless you have really dark skin, you have evolved away from the level of protection humans originally had when we evolved in Africa millennia ago.  We shed our original coarse hair, and though we have just as many follicles now, they "take turns" being active, and they make far smaller hairs now. 

Evolution decided that it was more economical to develop the ability to make melanin in our skin than to maintain a crop of coarse hair that constantly had to be replaced.  Once we spread out from the hot equator, the need for melanin diminished.  Some grew more hair, but we all adapted to the areas where we lived.

The light-skinned folks now have a compromised ability to produce melanin and so should avoid excessive sunlight or artificial UV exposure.  Sunscreen can really save your skin!

Use it Right!

Testing reveals that people only apply 25-50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen.  This means that if you need an SPF of 30, buy an SPF of 60 to get an actual 30 SPF—either that, or use the recommended amount and don't skimp.

Moms, it is said, are the worst offenders.  They will slather the sunscreen all over their kids and do a decent job (when they remember), but then they'll take the leftovers on their hands, wipe it on their face and arms, and figure "that's good enough"…  It isn't, and they're short-changing themselves.

Moreover, you should be using sunblock every day, whenever you go outside.  And it needs to be refreshed every two hours when you are outdoors, even when it is overcast, or it's wintertime.  However, the good thing is, if you put it on your exposed skin just as you're walking out the door, sunblock products take about 20 minutes to "activate" after they've been applied.

And (unless it is winter) for that first few minutes until it becomes fully effective…you're making just about the right amount of Vitamin D to be healthy, without pills or supplements.  Good job!



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