Saturday, 18 September 2021
I HAVE a confession to make. Wherever possible, I always try my best to practise what I preach but in this case I’m afraid I may have fallen short.
On a recent trip to the coast, I managed to give myself rather spectacular sunburn.
In my defence, the preceding days, including the entire journey there, had been constant torrential rain and the forecast did not predict otherwise.
All this meant I pitched up all ready for winter with raincoats and fleeces, only to see the sun make an immediate appearance which would last for the next two days, leaving me with a rather rosy and painful builder’s tan.
If only I had had some sun cream with me. The stuff we use today has been with us since the first half of the 20th century and it really is essential on those sunny days.
Obviously the sun has been around for longer than just the last 100 years and it is the sun, or more specifically the ultraviolet rays it gives off, that cause the burning.
While current sun creams use various chemicals to either reflect or absorb these UV rays, ancient Egyptians used pastes made with rice bran, while the Assyrians first used palm fronds (that gave rise to parasols) in order to protect themselves. There have been many more solutions for protecting us from the sun over our history. The reasons for doing so are important.
While it may be culturally popular to get a good tan, the damage this does to one’s skin should not be underestimated.
Aside from speeding up the ageing process of the skin, making it leathered and wrinkly, UV light significantly increases the risk of skin cancer.
Experiencing as few as five episodes of sunburn more than doubles the chance one will develop melanoma in the future and the same is true for only one episode in childhood of a sunburn that blisters.
Our bodies employ some defences of their own should their owners be inclined towards a bit of excessive sun exposure. Without the skin pigment melanin, for example, we would most likely be burnt to a crisp all the time.
Melanin is a pigment in the skin that protects the cells in the outmost surfaces of the skin from damage. If these cells are damaged they die but the DNA within them can become damaged as well and this can give rise to harmful mutations. Certain tumour-suppressing genes can become faulty, allowing cancers to grow unchecked.
For this reason, ancestors who evolved in equatorial regions where there is greater UV exposure typically have much greater levels of melanin in their skin, giving a browner appearance.
For those in higher latitudes, there is much less UV exposure in comparison and so less melanin.
Why make do with less? Because a certain amount of UV exposure is actually beneficial as it plays a role in the synthesis of vitamin D, which is important for absorbing calcium and keeping bones strong.
A healthy balance is therefore necessary. This is part of the reason why skin cancer rates are particularly high in places like Australia, where large numbers of European populations with fairer skin from higher latitudes have moved into an area with high UV levels.
It’s worth noting though that, even if you have darker skin, you can still burn so always wear sun screen if you are outside for any length of time if you can.
Even on a cloudy day in the UK, you can still get burnt. As much as 80 per cent of UV light will penetrate clouds.
In direct sun, you can burn within 10 minutes but one of the problems is that the redness associated with this won’t become apparent for potentially three to five hours afterwards.
By then, the damage to the cells has already been done; the redness is simply the skin’s inflammatory response.
This typically peaks by about 12 to 24 hours and can last for a week or so, over which time the damaged cells in the skin will gradually flake off or peel.
If you have been sunburnt, the first step is to try to cool the skin quickly as soon as you realise.
If you are near a pool, quickly take a 30-second dip and then get out of the sun as soon as possible.
Cover up and apply cold compresses but don’t apply ice directly to the skin. Perhaps a cool shower might help but avoid scrubbing the skin or using any harsh soaps.
The next important step is to moisturise the skin, preferably while the skin is still damp. This keeps the fluid in and the skin hydrated. It’s recommended not to use petroleum or oil-based moisturisers though as these keep the heat in, making it potentially worse.
If it is particularly sore you can use simple pain medications like paracetamol and ibuprofen, while aloe vera can sometimes soothe the burn. Loose clothing, rather than tight and rough materials, is preferable.
On a hot day when in any case you might potentially be a bit dehydrated, sunburn can make matters worse by drawing fluid into the skin as part of the inflammatory process, thus dehydrating you further.
Make sure therefore that you replenish your fluids and drink plenty.
If any blisters occur, don’t pop them and if they develop in a young child this probably needs checking out by a doctor or healthcare professional. Babies should never be left for any amount of time in direct sunlight.
On skin that you are concerned about, it is always worth being vigilant for moles or marks that appear to be growing or changing in shape or colour. Cancers tend to appear most often on sun-exposed surfaces such as the face, scalp and arms but not always. They have been known to pop up on the soles of the feet and even under the fingernails.
There are three main types of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinomas are the least serious but still need removing, as do squamous cell carcinomas. Melanomas are the most serious and these can spread and kill.
If in doubt, get anything you’re not sure about checked by a doctor.
Above all, making sure they don’t develop in the first place is most important. That means either staying out of the sun or covering up if you are in the sun for more than a few minutes.
If you are going to be exposed for longer, use sun cream of a suitable strength. SPF stands for sun protection factor and you should aim for at least an SPF of 30 to protect against UVB radiation while it also needs a UVA rating of at least four stars.
Apply it liberally and frequently on all exposed areas and be aware it may have an expiry date so make sure you check this too.
Above all, even if you think the sun won’t be out, try to keep some handy just in case. That’s something I did not do on my trip and which I am now regretting.
05 July 2021
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