The truth about Sunburn sunscreen and skin cancer

Sunburn occurs by overexposure to Ultraviolet light, most often from over exposure to the sun, tanning equipment or welding light. The UV light damages the skin on the DNA level. The symptoms, such as redness and burning, are the result of the body repairing the skin with the damaged DNA. More severe symptoms may include blistering, peeling, fatigue, and dizziness. Since the symptoms of sunburn are actually the body’s defense mechanism, the damage usually isn’t readily apparent. It may take as little as 15minutes for the DNA damage to occur, seconds if the UV light source such as welding is intense, but the redness usually takes 2 to 6 hours to develop. The pain takes in the neighborhood of 6 to 48 hours to develop, and symptoms continue to develop over the next 24 to 72 hours. Extreme overexposure to UV radiation can be life threatening.

In most cases the damage to the DNA is readily recognized by the body, and the body’s defense mechanisms trigger cell death to the affected skin cells. The body begins to replace the dead cells and increases the level of melanin in the cells. Melanin in the skin transforms UV light into harmless heat, and is the best protection against future DNA damage. Sometimes the body doesn’t effectively repair the cellular damage, and this can lead to non malignant skin tumors or possibly skin cancer. Since moderate amounts of sun tanning increase the levels of the melanin naturally produced by the body, this can be one of the best forms of preventing severe damage to the skin.

Blaming skin cancer on sunburn is not entirely accurate. The two most common forms of skin cancer are cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, and are directly linked to sunburn. Malignant melanoma is the most lethal form of skin cancer (responsible for 75% of skin cancer related deaths) and is not directly linked to sunburn because it is the result of indirect DNA damage. Topical sunscreens are proven to block the UV lights and prevent sunburn and direct DNA damage, thus preventing cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Since sunscreens prevent sunburn and the symptoms of UV light exposure, the user is lead into a false sense of security. When the sunscreen is absorbed into the skin and becomes excited by the UV rays, indirect DNA damage results, and leads to the rare but very deadly malignant melanoma. Recent studies have found a direct link and increase in the amount of skin cancer related deaths in sunscreen users. This is leading some scientists to suggest that the best form of skin cancer prevention is actually low level exposure to the sun that increases the amount of melanin produced. However, the best defense is not to be exposed at all by wearing hats, long clothing, and trying to remain in the shade whenever possible.

The only real cure for sunburn is time, but there are many ways to ease the pain and discomfort associated with sunburn. Topical ointments may be purchased, but some of the best treatments are found naturally. Aloe, in the form of leaves or ointment, is an astringent and relieves pain and inflammation, as well as moisturizes to minimize peeling. Aspirin is the preferred choice for pain relief for sunburn but must be taken within 24hours of exposure. A compress soaked in vinegar has been shown to help prevent or minimize the amount of blistering and peeling. Other household items such as milk, oatmeal, and Epson salt have also shown to help retain moisture and cool the skin. Whatever remedy you choose to ease the discomfort, give it time, because this is the only treatment for sunburn.

*Disclosure: This article presents information from scientific sources, but is not meant to treat or diagnose any medical condition.

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