Few things sting worse than a sunburn. But at least it’s over in a couple of days, right? Wrong.
The burns may fade quickly, but the damage they cause never goes away completely. Sunburns are just a symptom of severe skin cell damage. And knowing that sun damaged skin leads to cancer, there’s no reason NOT to protect yourself against it.
What Is a Sunburn?
There are only two types of light, and both can be harmful to your skin. We’ve all heard the terms UVA and UVB when it comes to sun exposure, but what’s the difference?
Only UVB light results in that infamous red burn. Its energy damages the protective layer of skin as it actually kills the top skin cells. Then, as the cells die, the layers peel off and we end up with tender, red, peeling skin.
What Really Happens When You Tan?
But what if you don’t burn? Does that light still damage your skin? If you’ve ever had a day out in the sun that resulted in an immediate tan, you’ve still done some damage to your skin, only in a different way. Here the UVB light has gone to a deeper level of the epidermis to the pigmenting cells. When those cells sense distress from light, they distribute a pigment to the regular cells around them in an attempt to protect them.
The problem is that our body doesn’t distribute that pigment fast enough to prevent a sunburn. The pigment helps with protection for the next day but doesn’t offer immediate protection. A tan is a response to damage the pigmenting cells have experienced. The skin manufactures extra pigment trying to protect itself more and more. But, eventually, damaged cells die. Even with a deep tan, the cells on top have suffered enough damage that they may peel off.
The more prevalent but less powerful UVA light doesn’t cause a sunburn, yet produces sun-induced wrinkles. This light penetrates past the epidermis to the dermis layer, damaging the collagen-producing fibroblast. Collagen rejuvenates our skin by repairing damage and keeping skin tight. So once the fibroblast is damaged and can’t produce enough collagen, we end up with more vulnerable, possibly wrinkled skin. Why? The skin lacks the collagen it needs to heal and tighten.
Why Do People Burn Differently?
Depending on our skin type, we tolerate the sun differently. Some people produce more pigment (meaning they have more pigmenting cells), which gives them more protection. Others with less pigment burn more easily.
Genetic predisposition changes susceptibility to sun exposure as well. Some genes are more easily damaged and can ultimately result in skin cancer. The same damage in someone else may not cause cancer because of a difference in genetic make-up.
Dark skin seems to resist sunburns but still can’t escape the damage the light causes altogether. Even those with dark skin still need to pay attention to sun protection. Typically, dark skin is more resistant to the sun, but it isn’t exempt from sun damage. It’s just able to handle the damage better.
Why ISN’T a Tan Worth the Burn?
No matter your natural skin tone, most people chase the look of tan skin. Culturally, we associate healthy skin with that smooth tan appearance. But our perspective is wrong.
What we view as “healthy” skin is actually damaged skin. And with sun damaged skin come lines, wrinkles, brown spots, thin skin, blood vessels. In the worst cases, it can even cause skin cancer. With those effects, being tan really isn’t worth it.
What Types of Cancer Can Come From Sun Damage?
There are three different types of skin cancer, but they’re all caused by sun damage.
Melanoma: When a pigmenting cell gets damaged by the sun and turns cancerous, it becomes melanoma.
Basal Cell: Cells in the bottom layer of the epidermis (the basal layer) produce more epidermal cells. When those get damaged by the sun, they can turn into basal cell cancer.
Squamous Cell: If a cell that has already left the basement membrane gets damaged and creates a cancer, it’s considered a squamous cell.
This makes sun protection vital. Having a tan just isn’t worth the risk.
Which Areas Are Extra Sensitive To Sunburn?
Your neck and your ears. People often miss these areas when applying sunscreen. Because the dermis is thin around the neck, the oil glands become more evident, resulting in damaged skin.
Also, fibroblast easily gets damaged in both the ears and neck because of the thin dermis. As fibroblast suffers, the collagen production shrinks and blood vessels can appear. Once the damage is done, the appearance remains. Even if you aren’t currently getting a lot of sun, you may still be left with a red look.
Damaged skin is more sensitive to wrinkles, bumps, redness, and even cancer. Think carefully before you venture into the sun this season. Apply sunscreen liberally and frequently to keep your skin looking its best for much longer than the summer season.
Dr. R. Todd Plott is a board-certified dermatologist in Coppell, Keller, and Saginaw, TX. His specialization and professional interests include treating patients suffering with acne, identifying and solving complex skin conditions such as psoriasis, rosacea, atopic dermatitis, and identifying and treating all types of skin cancers. In his spare time, Dr. Plott enjoys cycling, traveling with his wife, and spending time with his children and new grandson.
Learn more about Dr. Plott.