Too many people still don’t understand the damage sunburn can cause, says Zoe Strimpel
The sorry English weather has most of us giddy with excitement at the prospect of our August holiday somewhere sunny and hot. And though we all know that baking in the sun is bad for us, many of us are going to do it anyway. After all, what’s a fortnight in Tuscany or St Tropez without the tan to show for it?
But with more than 70,000 new cases of skin cancer diagnosed in the UK each year, we simply cannot pretend it’s okay to lie out in the sun with minimal protection and get burned. Remember too, that even a tan acquired without burning is a sign of damage: the darker pigment is caused by melanin, a result of melanocytes reacting to skin breakage and clubbing together to absorb further UV radiation.
There are two main reasons for our recklessness. First, says Nina Goad, of the British Association of Dermatologists, we feel that the UK’s bad weather means that we have to take advantage of the sun when we see it. This means massive overexposure.
“In sunny Mediterranean climates, you really shouldn’t be out sunbathing in the middle of the day. Yes, it’s your expensive holiday and you want the full whack of the sun, but try to concentrate your exposure to the sun in the mornings and afternoons.” Taking a long lunch followed by a siesta is a good way around the midday scorch.
Second, says Goad, is the misconception that in order to tan you must burn. In fact, you can build up a healthy colour even while wearing a sunblock and exposed to only “incidental” sun. Lying out in peak hours is bound to lead to severe skin damage, as you will inevitably miss areas with sunblock (tops of ears, armpits, hairline, lips), which at any rate comes off if you so much as move on your towel and forget to reapply.
Then there’s the fact that you can burn on your scalp, where cream can’t reach. Jane Lewis, Development Director for skin, the national network of specialist skin and body clinics in the UK, says: “Many of us only apply a quarter of what we should apply when it comes to sunscreen unless we make a conscious effort.”
There are two broad types of skin damage. There’s the cumulative variety that comes from ongoing exposure to sun, which can lead to basal cell carcinoma. Then there’s the type that we residents of the UK are most at risk from. This is the deadly melanoma, resulting from sunburn. Experts say that even being sunburned once – particularly before the age of 18 – can double a person’s risk of a cancerous melanoma even decades later. People with red and light hair and naturally fair skin at the greatest risk by far for sun-induced skin cancer. Those with olive skin are far less likely to suffer. Another reason we sally forth into the blazing heat and let ourselves be burned to a crisp year after year is that we often can’t be bothered to learn about the science of sunburn.
Block and Screen
UV radiation from the sun comes in three bands: UVA, UVB and UVC, though the latter doesn’t penetrate the earth’s atmosphere. UVB is the main culprit when it comes to sunburn from direct exposure. UVA can get through window glass and penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB, so make sure your sunscreen guards against both.
Aside from causing skin cancer, UV can also damage the elastin in the skin, which leads to premature aging – wrinkles, leathery and loose skin and brown pigmentation.
Sunscreen (called an inorganic filter) works by absorbing the harmful radiation and converting it to infrared which it beams back out. Inorganic filters (called sunblock) contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which reflects UV away from the skin.
The sun isn’t all bad, of course. Exposure to sunlight promotes Vitamin D absorption and that general happy feeling we get from blue skies. Just avoid the midday glare, and slap on the cream.