By Ferriss Roberts and Sam LaRose
Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun” reminds us that summer or vacation is near. A summer classic since 2002, Crow sings about some of life’s “downs” – a crummy job and tight budget – but she always manages to “look up” by having a good attitude and soaking up the sun, which is something we can totally get on board with! A good message overall, right? But we’re thinking a little more literally about what “soak up the sun” means. What does soaking up all of that sun do for your skin?
Not to be a buzzkill this summer, but melanoma is on the rise with people dying from it daily. What we’re trying to say is, enjoy the sun and protect yourself from it at the same time. Cynthia Maddox, a physician assistant at Mission My Care Now Spruce Pine, shed some (sun)light on skin and sun safety so you can get the most out of the summer sun in a safe and healthy way.
Why do we get sunburns?
“Sunburn is a transient inflammatory response of the skin to excessive exposure to the ultraviolet radiations, both natural and artificial,” Maddox said. There are two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays, ultraviolet A (UVA) or ultraviolet B (UVB), which can both cause sunburn, but she explained that UVB rays are more harmful to the skin. When a person develops a sunburn, their skin tissue undergoes a number of changes, which can result in the development of skin cancer, such as melanoma, which occurs when pigment-producing cells mutate and become cancerous. “The burn feeling is secondary to the injury to the tissue,” Maddox explained.
That’s right – while a sunburn might be an uncomfortable (and sometimes painful) experience, the permanent damage that can be done from this kind of overexposure to the sun can be much more devastating later in life.
But sunburns aren’t the only thing responsible for skin damage. That tan you’re working so hard on is also guilty of skin damage and potentially cancer. While repeated overexposure to the sun over a long duration of time can contribute to the development of skin cancer, Maddox said that it is not the tan or burn itself that causes skin cancer. “It is the damage caused by the burn or recurrent burns that can cause tissue changes that may result in cancer.”
Know your latitude, altitude and skin type
Okay, maybe not your exact latitude (great if you do) but at least have an awareness of where you are in relation to the sun. Some individuals may actually be at a higher risk of developing skin cancer, so they should be especially mindful about time spent in the sun. “Latitude and altitude affect the chance of burning as well as a person’s skin [type] such as fair skin, blue eyes and light hair,” Maddox said. People with these traits are typically at higher risk of developing melanoma in addition to skin damage from excessive exposure to the sun’s UVA or UVB rays.
You’re at most risk for sun damage on sunny days between 10 am and 4 pm, but don’t let the clouds deceive you – even at times during the day when it appears to be overcast or cloudy outside, you are still exposed to the sun. Although you might not feel as hot, your skin is absorbing sunlight. And not only that, but you may even be outside longer since you don’t feel as hot. Tricky, right? Using sunscreen, even on cloudy days or months outside of summer, is just as important as when the sun is shining.
What’s the best way to protect yourself from the sun?
Here’s a fun and simple fact: sunscreen is the most efficient way to protect yourself from the sun and prevent skin damage from overexposure to the sun. Find a mineral-based sunscreen with natural ingredients, such as zinc or titanium, with an SPF of 30 or higher that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. While it’s still theoretical at this point, Maddox said that the common belief among researches is that sunscreens with mineral bases may help prevent cancer more than sunscreens with chemical bases. “Anything that is placed on the skin can be absorbed into the body and into the bloodstream,” she explained.
Is it just us, or did SPFs seem to get higher within the last few years? Has our SPF 30 or 45 not been working this whole time? Good news – your SPF 30 is doing its job of protecting you from the sun. If you’re wondering if you should be using SPF 100, Maddox suggested the best way to achieve “100 percent SPF” is to use a complete sunblock, wear a wide brim hat with a long-sleeved black t-shirt, black pants and black socks. This may be necessary for some people, but general sun safety calls for an effective sunscreen. Areas of the body that should be considered top priority for coverage are the head, neck and hands, which have much thinner skin, making them more vulnerable and prone to damage.
Can you reverse sun damage?
Studies have suggested the possibility that vitamin B3 and B6 complexes may enable the skin to more easily regenerate itself after being damaged, and possibly help develop an immunity to skin cancer, however, these studies are still under review. While there may be ways to lessen skin damage, there is no known way to undo skin damage from the sun – so lather up, friends, young and old!
So the next time your stubborn friend refuses to wear sunscreen because they “don’t get sunburned” or they’re “working on their tan,” you let them know that sunscreen is cool and it helps protect them from skin damage that’s irreversible and potentially deadly.
Cynthia Maddox is a physician assistant at Mission My Care Now Spruce Pine.