A sun tan is an important aspect of a holiday for many tourists and travellers. However, while often considered a sign of vitality, it is in fact a sign that your skin has been damaged by the sun. The consequences are not insignificant, as acute sunburn can be very painful, while long term sun damage can lead to wrinkles, premature skin ageing and cancer.
Tanning and sunburn
The sun’s rays contain ultraviolet (UV) light, a form of radiation which enters the skin and passes into tissues, where it can damage the DNA. There are three types of UVA, UVB and UVC, of which the first two are the most penetrating and responsible for skin ageing and cancer. To try to protect itself, the body produces a pigment called melanin to help absorb UV radiation, and this is the cause of the skin colouration we call a sun tan. However, this provides only partial protection to sun damage. Sunburn is a visible reaction to this skin damage: skin is red and painful and feels hot and swollen and in severe cases, the skin blisters, weeps and peels.
Who is at risk?
Everyone, irrespective of ethnicity, skin colour, age and geography is at risk of sun damage. In regions near the equator, UV levels are high all year as sunlight has a shorter distance to travel to reach earth in comparison to temperate countries such as the UK, where UV levels change between winter and summer. Some parts of the world also have less ozone, which filters out some of the UV light, resulting in a high risk of sun damage. UV levels also increase at high altitude, and snow, sand and rough or rippling water reflect UV rays, increasing your risk of burning. The greatest risk is when the sun is high in the sky between 12 noon (local time) and 2pm, followed by the two hours either side of this time.
Children are particularly vulnerable to sun damage and babies under 6 months should never be left in direct sunlight. People with fair skin or lots of moles or freckles are at increased risk of developing skin cancer, and extra care is advised. The sun also causes damages to the eyes and can cause cataracts and cancer.
How to prevent sun damage
Limit your time in the sun and use an effective sun cream to protect your skin. Sun creams are made from chemicals that absorb UV light but they do not give 100% protection so don’t spend any longer in the sun than you would without sunscreen. Sun creams are graded by a sun protection factor (SPF) which is related to the length of protection they give against sunburn and a higher SPF offers longer protection. It is advised that adults use a sunscreen with a SPF of at least 15 and to buy one labelled "broad-spectrum” as this will protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
How to treat sunburn
Symptomatic relief is the mainstay of treatment once sunburn has occurred and painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen help to ease the pain. Some like Ibuprofen may also help to reduce inflammation. It is advised to drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids. Cold water and soothing lotions such as after sun or calamine also help provide symptomatic relief. Seek medical help if you feel unwell or the skin swells badly or blisters. Stay out of the sun until all signs of redness have gone. If skin blisters, lightly bandage or cover the area with gauze to prevent infection. Don’t break blisters (this slows healing and increases risk of infection). Apply antiseptic ointment if blisters break.
Seek medical attention if you experience: severe sunburn (especially if it covers more than 15% of the body), dehydration, high fever or extreme pain that lasts more than 48 hours.
Long term effects of skin damage
Photo-ageing is gradual skin damage caused by UV radiation, which causes skin to weaken, making it rough and thick or alternatively very thin and fragile.
Skin cancer is the UK’s most common and fastest rising cancer, with figures doubling every 10-20 years. Having fair skin and moles or freckles increases your risk of skin cancer but all skin types are at risk. Seek medical advice as soon as possible if a mole changes size, shape or colour or grows very quickly, or starts itching and/or bleeding. Skin cancers can usually be removed by surgery in the early stages but chemotherapy or radiotherapy may be needed as well. Melanoma, the most deadly skin cancer, is now one of the most common cancers in young adults aged 15-34 in the UK. Malignant melanoma is almost twice as common in young women (up to age 34) as in young men, but more men die from it.
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