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Most of us have experienced a sunburn at least once in our lives, but unlike the burn you get when you bite into a fresh slice of pizza or touch a curling iron, sunburns are in a class of their own. In this article we’re breaking down exactly what happens to your skin when it’s exposed to the sun and what kind of after-sun care you can incorporate if you’ve spent time outside.

Ultra violet light, not heat, causes sun burns

While the sun does feel warm or hot on the skin, it’s not the heat that causes the burn. Sunlight emits many kinds of electromagnetic waves including infrared light (the kind that feels hot), visible light (which is why its bright), and ultraviolet light. It is the combination of ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B light that is responsible for skin damage and sunburns [1].

Redness in the skin is your body’s reaction to radiation

UV light can damage your cell in two main ways. Directly, by hitting DNA and causing it to mutate, and indirectly, by bumping into other parts of cells, causing them to get excited then in turn bumping into DNA, causing mutations [1]. Both of these pathways cause the cells to send out chemical warning signals, telling the body that something is wrong [2]. When your body gets these signals it mounts an inflammatory response, making blood vessels wider to bring blood to the area to repair the damage, making the skin red [2]. If lots of cells experience the damage, they flake off in large amounts, causing skin peeling.

Our cells can repair some DNA damage but if it can’t it can lead to cancer

Our body produces enzymes that are capable of preventing and reversing some DNA damage [3]. But if the damage cannot be repaired and important blueprints in the DNA are affected, over time the cells can become cancerous. The more times the skin is exposed to UV light the higher the risk of developing cancer.

No matter your skin colour, UV light is damaging

When sunlight hits your skin the pigment, melanin, absorbs some UV light in an effort to shield your skin from harm. When exposed to UV light your body makes more melanin in an effort to better protect your cells from the damaging rays, that’s why your skin may darken, or tan in the sun [3]. It’s important to know that no matter what colour your skin is, or how much you tan, melanin does not protect you from the damaging UV light. UV can always sneak past melanin and damage your cells.

What can be done to ensure healthy skin?

The first line of defence is always to stay out of the sun. The next best thing is protective clothing, hats and sunglasses. If your skin is going to be exposed to the sun, ensure you’re wearing at least SPF 30 and are reapplying it every 2 hours (as UV light degrades sunscreen over time). Applying topical antioxidants in combination with sunscreen to the skin like Vitamin C, E, and B3 may also help reduce environmental stress. Eating antioxidant rich foods like colourful fruits, veggies and dark chocolate can also help lower your risk of damage. Even if you’re wearing sunscreen, sun exposure will always result in some skin damage so sun aftercare is essential.
If you get a sunburn – your body is mounting that inflammatory response to try and repair the damage. Drink plenty of water to aid in the repair and increase in blood flow to the affected area. Stay out of the sun until the redness is gone as the cells are extra sensitive at this time. Only shower in cool water and avoid applying soaps or body washes to prevent over-drying the skin. Apply an unscented body lotion (baby formulations often contain aloe and zinc which can help soothe irritation due to dryness). If the skin begins to peel, avoid picking at it and instead apply a nourishing oil like Vitamin E + Oat Serum. Do not apply occlusive ingredients like petroleum jelly to the area, this can prevent hydration from getting into the skin. Incorporate anti-inflammatory foods into your diet to help with the localized inflammation like turmeric, ginger, berries, and garlic.
If you’ve spent time outside – even if your skin hasn’t burned, your skin is still in need of some care as a result of sun exposure. Ensure it is hydrated internally by drinking plenty of water, and externally by applying humectant ingredients (try the HydrExtreme Sheet Mask for potent and persistent hydration). For after sun lip care look no further than the HydrExtreme Lip Serum with the water-binding power of HydrExtreme, combined with the nourishing benefits of plant oils and saponins, it leaves your skin nourished and healthy looking.
Sometimes sun exposure is inevitable but understanding the risks, reduction strategies, and regimen refinements associated with it means you can keep your skin happy this summer.
[1] Van Laethem, A., Claerhout, S., Garmyn, M., & Agostinis, P. (2005). The sunburn cell: regulation of death and survival of the keratinocyte. The international journal of biochemistry & cell biology37(8), 1547-1553.
[2] Rhodes, L. E., Gledhill, K., Masoodi, M., Haylett, A. K., Brownrigg, M., Thody, A. J., ... & Nicolaou, A. (2009). The sunburn response in human skin is characterized by sequential eicosanoid profiles that may mediate its early and late phases. The FASEB Journal23(11), 3947-3956.
[3] MacLeod, A. S., & Mansbridge, J. N. (2016). The innate immune system in acute and chronic wounds. Advances in wound care5(2), 65-78.
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