I blister in the sun

Since we are getting closer to the official start of summer (June 21), I figured why not write about something relevant, like sunburning.  We have all been burned before, and that can be taken in numerous ways.  However I am talking about one of the more literal interpretations of burned - a sun burn.  A sunburn is NOT the same thing as burning oneself on a hot stove or bunsen burner.  It is not caused by the warmth of the sun, but it is caused by the sun's UV (ultraviolet) rays. The UV rays are a form of radiation and energy from these rays damages the molecules in your skin which causes an acute reaction. What molecules you ask?  One of the more important molecules (though I am a molecular biologist so my favoritism may be skewed): DNA.

Now, many of you may not completely understand what DNA is, so let me help.  DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) is a blueprint for your entire body. Your body is made up of tons (technical term) of molecules, and these molecules form different groups to make up your different organs (stomach, lungs, heart, kidney, and skin -YES your skin is an organ!). How do they know what to be grouped into though, and how are they made?  Essentially the answer to that question is DNA! Like I said before, DNA is your personal blueprint, it dictates when things should be made, how they should be made, and where they should be made.  And when you get sunburned THAT is the molecule you damage. Not good.

Let's look at an overall picture of what is going on when you get sunburned: UV rays hit your skin, damage your DNA (your blueprint), synthesis of certain proteins and enzymes (other small molecules that preform certain jobs) because of this damage, dilation of cutaneous blood vessels, recruitment of inflammatory cells to irritated site, redness/swelling/pain in damaged area. This whole process takes time to occur, which is why it typically takes about 4-6 hours for redness and swelling to appear. By the way, your skin turns red because there is increased blood flow in that area.  If you have ever pressed on your sun burn and it briefly turns white it is because you pushed the blood out of the capillaries in that area.  It will turn red as soon as you stop pushing on it because the blood is flowing back into those capillaries.  Read more from here and here.

If your sunburn is severe, sometimes you will peel. Your are peeling off dead skin cells that have been automatically programmed to die when their DNA damage becomes 'beyond repair'.  So when you see your skin peel, thats hundreds/thousands of dead cells that you killed. Notice that I said your cells are programmed to die when they become "unfixable".  There are natural ways in which your DNA can be repaired, but at some point the probability is high enough and there will be so much damage, there is bound to be a mistake.  Depending on where that mistake is in your DNA, this could be fatal - cue skin cancer.

As a scientist I strive to make the truth known, so now I will discredit a very common misconception. Only when you turn red from sun exposure you damage your skin - WRONG. Ladies, I am looking at you. There is no such thing as a base tan - any color your skin takes on is a result of skin damage. And ANY damage can lead to skin cancer, which is the most popular cancer in the US.  When you peel you are getting rid of cancerous skin cells, cells that are damaged beyond repair. UV damage is also responsible for 90% of visible skin aging (wrinkles) and there is no way to undue your underlying skin damage. How are tanning beds still in business?

According to the CDC, white men are the most likely to develop skin cancer. Why?  Men get more sun exposure because they tend to be outside more than women.  Also women's personal care products (make up) have sunscreen in them. But I do not want to discourage women from putting on more sunscreen!  The more the better.

My blog is named "Think like a proton" because I want to stay positive (protons are tiny molecules that are always positively charged) and I would be a giant hypocrite if I left this article as is. What can you do to avoid skin damage?  Well, avoid being in direct sunlight from 10am-4pm (when the sun is directly overhead or at its peak).  If you know you will be in the sun, wear sunscreen.  I would recommend at least SPF 15 broad spectrum sunscreen. (I use SPF 50 broad spectrum, yes, I'm proud and pale.) SPF means sun protection factor, and the number before SPF is the amount of time the sunscreen is expected to protect your skin from sun damage.  For instance, if you walk out in the sun with no sunscreen on at all, it will take about 15 minutes for your skin to be damaged. SPF 15 protects you 15 times longer than no sunscreen. How much sunscreen should you use?  About a shot glass full.  Sunscreen also is lotion/or spray based so after about two hours it will need to be reapplied - no matter what SPF you have.  You want a broad spectrum sunscreen because there are different spectrums or sun rays.  UVA and UVB are the rays that can currently penetrate through our atmosphere (UVC is blocked, currently), thus they are the rays that can reach and damage your skin.  UVA is typically what gives you sunburns and causes aging.  UVB is still somewhat blocked by our atmosphere,  but these rays penetrates your skin more deeply - so you will want to protect yourself from them as well. CDC Article

Another positive note: Philly has started placing sunscreen dispensers around the city.  About 20 will be installed in total and they will be around Kelly Drive, City Hall, Citizen Bank Park, city pools, and city parks. The sunscreen is broad spectrum SPF 30 (so even they are not using the bare minimum) and they are manufactured by Bright Guard. This is a fantastic idea and hopefully other cities have or will start installing these dispensers around the city. Philly Article

Moral of the story: don't blister in the sun like the Violent Femmes. Put some damn sunscreen on.


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