Sunburn is your body’s reaction to skin cells being cooked by ultraviolet radiation. The sun’s rays may feel good on your skin, and we all need a little sunlight in order to produce vitamin D, but strong UV radiation damages the DNA of cells deep within the layers of your skin, causing them to die.
It’s when your body detects this damage and attempts to do something about it that you’ll see the classic symptoms of sunburn; red, painful and hot skin. In other words, by the time you notice sunburn, it’s already too late, and the damage has been done.
The human body has remarkable healing abilities and most of the immediate damage done by sunburn can be repaired within a matter of days (depending on how severe the exposure was), but enduring a few days of discomfort and peeling skin isn’t the only price paid for spending too long out in the sun.
Being sunburned doubles your chances of developing skin cancer. Some recent research indicates that as many as 4 out of 5 skin cancer cases are a result of UV exposure earlier in life.
With advances in medical technology, our ability to successfully treat incidents of skin cancer is better than ever, but even so a malignant melanoma (the most serious type of skin cancer) is lethal in 10% of cases. And if not caught early enough, skin cancers can spread to other organs and parts of the body, making the situation much more severe.
For anyone thinking that they’re safe because they rarely get any good weather; the bad news is that it doesn’t require a particularly warm climate to get burned. In fact, the number of people developing skin cancer has been rising faster than any other type cancer, and it is now the most common cancer in the world – with 1 in every 3 cancers diagnosed being a skin cancer. Figures show the 1 in every 5 Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their life.
So preventing sunburn and limiting exposure to UV radiation should be a top priority, especially for children, who are more likely to get sunburned due to their thinner skin, and their tendency to spend more time outside in bright sunlight.
The easiest way to prevent sunburn is also the most simple; stay out of the sun during peak hours (between roughly 10am and 3pm). This is because during this time, due to the angle at which the earth is facing the sun, UV radiation has less atmosphere to travel through before it reaches our skin, meaning that it’s stronger and will do more damage than sun light in the morning or evening.
Unfortunately most children are almost always outside within these peak hours, during lunch-breaks at schools or out playing in the garden or park, where there is usually minimal shelter from the sun.
So youngsters should be encouraged to cover-up with hats and clothes, and to use sunscreen on exposed areas of skin… Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to get children to cover up or wear sunscreen when it’s warm outside and all they want to do it play in the sun!
Some schools have begun to invest in canopies with a UV filter to protect children from damage while they’re playing outside. It’s also an option worth considering for the garden at home. Not only will it help protect long-term health (not to mention stopping any garden furniture from fading), but will also help avoid nasty sunburns.
James Armstrong is an experienced journalist and broadcaster, currently writing on behalf of the British company, Canopies UK.