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No, I’m not wearing white jeans. Those are my lockdown legs

How to avoid sun damage after months stuck indoors

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After a winter of lockdown and with coronavirus restrictions lifting here and there, many will be hoping for a good long stretch of sunny weather this summer. There’s some optimism about being able to socialize outdoors in the next few months.

This shift makes it particularly important that people don’t forget the risks posed by the sun.

Skin damage caused by the sun is associated with both skin cancer and premature aging of the skin. The culprit in both cases is ultraviolet radiation (UV). Invisible to human eyes, UV sits just beyond the purple end of the visible light spectrum.

One reason it is so harmful is that its energy can be absorbed by our cells’ DNA, causing it to become damaged. If the cell isn’t able to repair this DNA damage, this can lead to genetic changes, or mutations, which in turn can cause cancer. Because of their location on the surface of the body, skin cells are the main target for UV damage.

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The body does have some protection against these harmful effects. Molecular mechanisms within our cells are able to detect and repair the DNA damage before it can cause mutation. When skin cells detect DNA damage, they activate alarm signals that get passed on to pigment-producing cells to tell them to start producing more pigment to help protect against further damage. It’s the production of this pigment, melanin, that causes a suntan.

A tan is therefore a sign that your skin has been damaged. The protection a tan provides has been estimated to be equivalent to an SPF of around four. This means that although it will take four times longer in the sun to burn, it can still happen.

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If you’re exposed to lots of UV, then the amount of DNA damage can overwhelm cells’ defences. All is not lost though, because a damaged cell has a final line of defence by which it can activate death programs, “choosing” to die by a process called apoptosis. This means that badly damaged cells, which could go on to become cancerous, are eliminated from the body before they can cause harm.

Anyone who’s ever had sunburn has experienced this process in action. Huge amounts of dying cells in the skin leads to inflammation, causing the characteristic painful reddening of the skin that can be an unpleasant end to a day out in the sun.

But sometimes these defences aren’t enough, and the damage to the skin caused by UV can lead to skin cancer. Staggeringly, a recent study has shown that skin cancer is up to eight times more common in England today than it was in the early 1980s.

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Sitting outdoors for catch-up in the afternoon sun can result in a sunburn, especially for fair-skinned people.
Sitting outdoors for catch-up in the afternoon sun can result in a sunburn, especially for fair-skinned people. Photo by Getty Images

What does this mean as we all keep our fingers crossed for a “BBQ summer”?

While it’s true that the intensity of UV is not as high in Canada as in the Mediterranean or other low-latitude countries, we’re about to enter the months during which UV intensity is at its peak. It’s important to bear in mind that it’s still possible to be exposed to harmful levels of UV when out and about, particularly for children or people with fair skin that tends to burn easily or freckle. After months of lockdown, many might be desperate to get out into the sunshine, but it’s important not to overdo it — and there are safer ways to get a tan.

It can be quite difficult to judge how much UV you’re being exposed to, as levels can be quite high even on some cloudy days. One way to protect yourself is to be aware of the UV index, which tells how strong the UV rays are each day.

This will help you know whether you need to use sun protection such as hats, protective clothing and a broad protection sunscreen of SPF 20 or above, thinking about how long you’ll be out for. It’s a good idea to take extra care between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the sun is at its peak.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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