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Dark Side of the Sun: Why You Need to Protect Your Skin

By Martha Michael


It’s a familiar scene of self-care: A tilted umbrella on a white sandy beach next to a sunbather on a lounge chair. What’s wrong with this picture? The feeling of relaxation is enchanting in the moment, but in reality, exposure to the sun’s rays can lead to problems from temporary sunburn pain to long-term concerns such as skin cancer.

Diary of a Sunburn

The browning of your skin seems innocuous, even fashionable, but is a sign that you’re doing damage to the largest organ in your body, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation website. When rays of sun hit unprotected skin, a process of cell mutation begins. Your skin becomes inflamed in reaction to the sun’s rays; the visible effect is a darkness that develops in the melanin, which is the pigment found in your skin, hair, and eyes.

Whether you tan or burn, it’s a sign of cellular damage to your skin. People whose genetic makeup has less melanin tend to sunburn more easily, sometimes becoming swollen, red, and painful. In some cases, blisters develop on the skin.

You may have seen old sunburns begin to peel. This is the body’s healthy response to harm; it’s trying to slough off damaged cells. Instead of manually pulling off loose pieces of skin, let the peeling occur naturally.

UV rays sometimes affect you further and alter a gene that suppresses the formation of tumors, which leads to the development of melanoma.

Even when your skin shows no sign of tanning or burning, exposure to the sun causes damage to the epidermis, or top layer of skin. Ultraviolet radiation, not heat from the sun, is what damages your skin, which is why you can get burned in any kind of weather. You may think the clouds are a blanket of protection, but what you’re getting is a false sense of security; up to 80 percent of the sun’s rays can penetrate the thickness of clouds.

Levels of Skin Damage

When UV rays have caused cells to mutate and become cancerous, the diseased area of the skin is excised and a biopsy is conducted. The website for the American Cancer Society describes the stages of skin cancer that can result from skin damage or other causes.

Basal cell carcinomas are early-stage cancers and are typically treated successfully. They rarely recur, but squamous cell carcinomas -- which are fairly common and are mostly found in the head and neck areas -- sometimes come back after being surgically removed.

When a suspicious area of the skin is excised and a biopsy reveals the tissue is cancerous, your physician will determine its stage of growth. The system of identification -- established by the American Joint Commission on Cancer -- bases the outcome on three features, each with a letter assigned to it:

  • T for tumor: The size of the tumor and whether it’s grown deeper into bone or tissues
  • N for nodes: The possibility the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes
  • M for metastasis: Whether the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body

The status of those three factors combine to establish the stage of severity in an individual’s case. The earliest stage is 0 and others range from the Roman numeral I to IV. The higher number is an indicator that the condition is advanced, and in most cases, it means the tumor has spread to other areas of the body. Other factors affecting the prognosis include:

  • Speed of the tumor’s growth
  • Borders of the tumor
  • Location of the tumor
  • Invasion of blood vessels or small nerves
  • Health of the patient’s immune system

Types of Treatment

If you realize you spent too much time in the sun and are suffering for it, there are simple methods to treat symptoms. An article on the VeryWell Health website offers sunburn relief with the help of home remedies.

Hydrotherapy - By moistening your skin and applying towel compressions throughout the day, you keep your skin hydrated and cool the burn. Make sure the temperature is lukewarm or cooler because hot water can cause pain and remove natural oils from your skin.

Topical gel - Aloe vera is a safe and reliable product with anti-inflammatory properties and moisturizer to reduce peeling. Most people report an easing of their pain and it has been known to speed up recovery.

Baking soda - Though it’s an unproven home remedy, many suggest taking a bath with a few tablespoons of baking soda to ease inflammation and reduce itching. When made into a paste, it’s also used as a salve applied directly to sunburns.

Essential oils - Natural products used topically can work to promote healthier skin as well as alleviate symptoms of sunburn. Essential oils that offer benefits include:

  • Bergamot
  • Sandalwood
  • Cilantro
  • Spikenard
  • Lavender
  • Chamomile

While spending the day in a beach chair sounds luxurious, too much time in the sun without shade or neglecting to use sunblock can reap unwelcome consequences. A nice tan line can seem like a benefit but may lose its appeal when held up to years of premature sagging, leathery skin, unsightly scars, or worse -- a battle with cancer.

Let that thought burn into your brain for a few minutes..

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