Sunburn is the skin's response to overexposure to ultraviolet rays from sun. You have had too much sun if your skin goes a little red, or feels uncomfortable with a slight stinging, dry or windblown effect. After a few days this can progress to itching and peeling of the skin. Severe sunburn can cause blisters on the skin.
The sun's rays are essential for good health (creating vitamin D and other benefits), but always in moderation. The ideal is up to 30 minutes per day of mild sunlight, within an hour or two from sunrise or sunset in a temperate climate. If the sunlight causes the slightest redness or tight feeling on the skin then it is damaging.
You are more likely to burn your skin in the sun in the summer, closer to the equator, at high altitudes, and near reflective surfaces like snow, water and white sand.
Strong or excessive sunlight injures your skin, and creates free radicals that cause ageing. A tan is not healthy - it is a sign that you have had too much sun and that your skin is damaged. If you want proof that the sun is a major cause of skin ageing, compare the skin on the outer side of your arm with the skin under your armpit. For most people living in sunny climates, the exposed skin looks older.
Two out of three Australians will develop some type of skin cancer during their lives. Most of these cancers are not malignant, but they are still an indication of the level of sun damage that occurs to the average person's skin. A single day of severe, blistering sunburn can cause the development of a cancer between two and twenty years later. Repeated mild burning over the years can achieve the same effect.
Harsh sunlight can damage your eyes, clouding the clear lenses and eventually causing cataracts, macular and other retinal degeneration. A high level of free radicals from too much sun damages your immune system, making you susceptible to a wide range of infections, skin cancers and rheumatic problems, especially in older people. Herpes sufferers have long known of the association between over-exposure to sun and the outbreak of sores.
The only effective way to prevent sunburn is to cover up. I personally do not use sunscreens. Firstly, I do not understand the chemicals they contain, and choose not to rub them into my skin. Zinc oxide is OK to use as a sunblock on your skin, but I have heard too many stories about the cancer-causing and health effects of other chemicals. Unfortunately, there is virtually no research in this area - who would ever sponsor it?
There are three main kinds of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell, and malignant melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are common, medically minor, and not usually counted in cancer statistics. They are caused primarily by ultraviolet-B light, the short wavelength light that causes sunburn and does not penetrate the skin deeply. Most sunscreens block the UV-B rays and help prevent sunburn and these minor cancers.
Ultraviolet-A radiation has a longer wavelength, and easily passes through glass (windows), cloud and polluted air. UV-A penetrates right through the outer skin down to the melanocytes, the cells that become cancerous in melanoma cases. Most sunscreens (particularly the older formulas) do not block out UV-A. Melanomas are deadly, and used to be rare. In the developed world, their incidence increased dramatically in the 40 years up to 1990, though they have levelled out since then.
People can spend more time in the sun without seeming to get burned when they use sunscreens. Unfortunately, the ultraviolet-A radiation is still penetrating their skin in a large dose, and their natural early warning system (sunburn) has been blocked by the sunscreen.
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