Sunny Days: Ultraviolet Overexposure

Ever since the CoppertoneĀ® girl showed off her tan lines in 1953, having a golden tan has been the “trendy” look for skin. For a number of years now researchers have educated the public and reinforced the statements that tans are unhealthy, and the sun can cause skin damage and even cancer. Still, the local pool is packed and the beaches are more for “catching some rays” than swimming or surfing. As the atmosphere above is damaged, the sun’s ultraviolet rays become more dangerous each year. What can you do to help students understand the importance of protecting their skin?

Sunburns don’t show immediately, and they are usually most painful within the first 6-48 hours after exposure. True, a sunburn will turn into a tan, but that is only because the skin has been severely damaged by the initial burn, and is working to protect against another sunburn.

First it’s important to understand why it’s possible to get a sunburn. When ultraviolet radiation is absorbed by your skin, melanin goes to the surface of your skin and acts as a natural sunscreen to shield your skin from further damage. Melanin gives your skin a “tan” color, and that color deepens with continued exposure. Sunburns occur when the exposure to the ultraviolet light exceeds the ability of the melanin to protect skin. People with pale skin don’t consistently produce enough melanin to protect their skin, so they are more prone to sunburns. Each time you tan or burn, you damage your skin. Damage results in wrinkles, sun spots, and in some cases, skin cancers including carcinomas and melanoma.

Teachers and parents should be familiar with the “It won’t happen to me” attitude. Kids don’t worry about things like cancer, because they don’t believe it will ever affect them. If you can’t sell the cancer statistics, you might have better luck hitting where it hurts. The truth is, 70% of the damage done to one’s skin happens before the age of 17, and each severe sunburn doubles the chance of skin cancer. Sunburns are painful, damaging, and especially not attractive to those who would have rather had that “bronzed look” anyway.

How do you keep from getting a sunburn? Obviously, the best thing to do is avoid the sun. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10am and 3pm, so this is the easiest time to get a sunburn. Plan outdoor activities for early morning or late afternoon, and always wear sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15, that blocks UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreens with an SPF lower than 15 don’t provide sufficient UV protection, because they don’t block a high enough percentage of UV rays. Using an SPF of at least 25 is really your best bet, and will help ensure you don’t burn.

A few healthy reminders:

* Pale really is “in.” Really healthy skin is pale-with fewer wrinkles and a lower chance of skin cancer. While the models on the covers of the latest fashion magazines may look like they’ve been on the beach for days, a quick look at the inside cover will reveal the name of the sunless tanner they used to achieve the bronze glow. You’d be hard pressed to find a model that actually tans under UV rays.
* Steven Spielberg is hip. Sport a baseball cap with a big brim, sunglasses, a beard and big, baggy clothes. Spielberg is a great sun protection role model.There are many clothing brands emerging that offer clothing with an SPF to help protect skin just like sunscreen does.
* Watch the UV index. The ultraviolet index is printed in most major newspapers. Take heed and stay inside when the UV index is high. Anything over 7 on the index is serious; 10 means big-time sun burns.
* Make 15 your lucky number. Skip the lotions that only provide partial sun protection. SPF 15 is the first stop for real skin protection.Waterproof sun screen will wear off and wipe off on a towel. Reapply protection frequently, especially when at the beach. Lips are skin too. Use a lip balm with an SPF of 15 or greater every day.
* Remember snow and sandburn. Reflected sunlight bounces ultraviolet rays right back at you, creating dangerous “sun surround.” Snow reflects 80-90 percent of the sun’s harmful rays; sand reflects between 15 and 20 percent.

For more on sunscreen, sunburns, and your skin, check out these links:

* Effects of UV radiation – aging
* The Federal Experimental Ultraviolet Index: What You Need to Know
* Melanoma Facts and Figures
* UV detection card
* How Stuff Works: Sunburns & Tans