Summer’s almost here and everyone knows what that means; along with bugs, barbecues, and beaches, it’s sun season. For some people, this is the best time of year—time to strip down to a swimsuit and get an effortless golden tan. For people like me, though, it’s time to start carrying a giant tube of sunscreen everywhere I go. Even though I’m not red-haired or freckled, I have extremely fair skin, and on a sunny day, I burn after just a few short minutes outside. If you looked at the rest of my family though, you’d think I was their weirdly-pale distant relation, because my parents and sibling all have deeply tanned, almost Mediterranean skin. Thanks, genetics.
Decided by DNA
Some people are tanners and some people are stay-in-the-shaders, depending on the amount of melanin in their skin. We all possess melanin; some of us more and some less. It’s produced by cells called melanocytes, which can be found buried in the deep layers of skin. Melanocytes protect our skin by releasing melanin in response to exposure to UV rays. Whether you’re a tanner or a burner, any time you see your skin change color, that’s the result of melanin being produced. Everyone has about the same number of melanocytes in their skin, no matter what race they are or skin type they have. The only difference is how active the cells are. The more active the melanocytes, the darker a person’s skin is. People with dark, Mediterranean, or black skin are more naturally protected from the sun and far less likely to get burned.
Ultimately, sun worship is dangerous and even a suntan is a sign of skin damage. It tells us that the melanocytes have been activated and are attempting to protect the outer layers of skin. Dark-skinned people have melanocytes that take a pretty relaxed approach to defense, since they already produce more melanin anyways. For fair-skinned people, our melanocytes go into hyperdrive trying to protect us. But anyone, regardless of skin type, can overdo it, and when we get too much sun, it results in the hot, red, and painful condition we know (and hate) as a sunburn.
Painful red irritation is a first-degree sunburn. After sun exposure, it can take several hours for the full effects to appear on the skin and the burn might be accompanied by swelling or headaches. Some bad burns peel in a few days, sloughing off the top layer of dry, damaged skin. Even sun poisoning, which we think of as being quite serious, is no more than a first-degree burn with some vomiting, nausea, and dizziness thrown in for extra fun. Second-degree sunburns are marked by liquid-filled blisters that can leave skin scarred and freckled forever.
The effects of sunburns can linger for a lifetime. Sunburns can damage the skin’s DNA and even one bad burn is enough to trigger the cellular changes that lead to cancer. Because of the popularity of tanning, skin cancer rates are on the rise, and melanoma is a leading cancer among young women.
When you’re at the beach or the park and getting ready to lather up for a day in the sun, there are certain body parts that never seem to get enough attention. Nothing feels sillier than being dotted with red splotches marking the areas you missed, so make sure to cover your ears, your hands, your scalp, and your neck. I’ve even had a sunburn on the soles of my feet and let me tell you—it isn’t pretty. Some body parts are more susceptible to burning than others, namely, those that are usually covered up. Arms and legs generally have had more exposure to the sun than your stomach or derriere and won’t burn quite as readily. The parts you especially need to watch out for are lips, eyes, and face, since the skin is thin and delicate, and sun damage can cause wrinkles and premature aging. And remember—you can still get burned even if it’s cloudy or you sit in the shade.
When Is a Burn Not a Burn?
Heat rash is a condition where sun damages the top layer of skin cells, forming a barrier that doesn’t let sweat out. The sweat then bubbles up and causes a prickly, irritating swath of bumps. Heat rash (also called prickly heat) usually happens when it’s very hot and humid, and most often appears on clothed parts of the body. Although it’s red and irritating like a sunburn, it’s different, although it usually goes away on its own after a few days.
If you do develop a sunburn, there’s not a lot to do except wait it out. There are a few home remedies that can help ease the discomfort while your skin heals. Aveeno powder in a cool bath can soothe inflamed skin and keep you hydrated. Compresses of cool milk are also good for easing pain and milk proteins are good for your skin. Taking an anti-inflammatory can help reduce the inflammation of a sunburn and there’s even evidence that it can help prevent it if you take it after sun exposure, but before the burn develops. Vinegar, witch hazel, and baking soda can also be added to cool baths to lessen the stinging and speed healing.
For those of us who are determined to enjoy the sun without destroying our skin, it just takes a little vigilance and a lot of acceptance. It also helps to find a sunscreen you love and don’t mind slathering on (I’m obsessed with Ocean Potion, which feels like silk and smells like creamsicles). I’ll never be the girl on the beach with the golden bronze tan and I’ll always come back from vacations just as pale as I was before I left. But it’s okay, because when I’m forty, I’ll have softer skin, fewer wrinkles, and I’ll never look like a leathery handbag. Sometimes I get bummed that I’ll never get a tan, but on the bright side, I look great in big floppy hats.