Many of us Brits love the sun, soaking up as much of it as possible in those rare few weeks of British summertime, in an attempt to look like the buffed, bronzed cast of Love Island! But what is actually happening to your body when you’re lying in your garden, coated in tanning oil?!
At London Doctors Clinic, we are not advocating such behaviour, but if there’s one thing that our private doctors don’t do, it’s judge! So if you’re planning on slow-roasting your skin during the next summer heatwave, you can at least do it in full knowledge of what you’re putting your skin through! Read this article to find out more…
Why Does Our Skin Tan?
Tanning is a natural bodily process; when your skin is exposed to sunlight, it causes a pigment in the skin (melanin) to be broken down. As a result, your skin – the human body’s largest organ – produces darker melanin and more of it! This production of melanin is what gives your skin a darker appearance (i.e. a tan).
Tanning is a natural protection mechanism to prevent further damage to the deeper layers of skin.
Sun Exposure and Skin Damage
The production of melanin shows that damage may have occurred to your skin as a result of exposure to intense sunlight.
Skin damage is a not something to be taken lightly: it is serious problem. It can lead to development of skin cancers which, at their most serious, can be life threatening. It is important to keep track of new moles, looking for colouration changes, growth and shape.
Overexposure to UV waves can also cause the breakdown of two essential proteins: elastin and collagen. Such proteins are crucial to the health and appearance of your skin, which is why prolonged sun exposure can lead to more wrinkles and poor skin health!
If you spend a lot of time in the sun, it is especially important to keep track of your moles, looking out for changes in colour, size and shape
UV Rays and DNA Damage
Not only does sun exposure cause skin damage, but it can also trigger mutations in your DNA. Sunlight contains different types of UV waves: UVA and UVB.
UVB waves are shorter in wavelength – this gives them greater ability to penetrate the deeper layers of skin, such as the epidermis. The epidermis is home to a population of constantly dividing cells, called basal cells. These are what provide your skin with the ability to regenerate (approximately every 28 days), as they are continually being produced!
However, when these UV rays (particularly the more penetrating UVB waves) hit the basal cell population, problems arise, as DNA damage is induced. As this layer of basal cells reproduce, they carry the DNA forward into the next generation of cells – which ultimately can lead to a form of skin cancer called Basal Cell Carcinoma.
Who Is More At Risk?
Those with a lighter complexion are more at risk of skin damage and skin cancer. This is because they do not produce as much melanin, therefore lack a sufficient protection against the harmful rays of the sun.
Once Sunburnt, Twice Shy!
Of course, precious holiday time is often very limited and your colleagues back at the office will likely judge how impressive your holiday was based on the quality of your tan! So, every moment of sun exposure counts, even if you’re already burnt, right? Wrong! You may think that once you’ve already been burnt, it doesn’t matter if you expose yourself to any more sun. It should be noted, however, that it is almost more dangerous getting sunburnt after already having initial sunburn.
Did you know that exposing sunburn to intense sunlight can increase your risk of developing skin cancer?
How The Skin Reacts To Sunburn
Once sun damage has occurred, the body must decide whether the damage is so significant that the body must remove the damaged skin cells or whether they can be repaired. If your body is in the process of doing this and you get sunburnt again, you are causing further damage, but you may also deregulate the body’s natural process of identifying potential cancerous cells. As such, exposing sunburn to intense sunlight can greatly increases your risk of developing skin cancer.
Freckles Vs The Sun
Everyone is aware that sunburn is a sign that you were irresponsible in the sun, and Brits abroad are renowned for their red complexion by the early evening. However, there are other signs that your skin has been overexposed – including freckles!
Freckles are a concentration of melanin, the protective substance in your skin that is elevated in production when exposed to sunlight. Of course, if you’ve had freckles since childhood (as many redheads do!), this isn’t a sign of sun damage – just your natural complexion. However, if you were to develop freckles over the years, this is a sign of long-term sun damage.
Does The Sun Treat Acne?
It has been believed for a long time that sunbathing can make your acne better. However, this is not actually true.
Occasionally, dermatologists may recommend a low level UV light treatment called Phototherapy to treat conditions such as eczema and acne, but this level of light is a far cry from ‘sunbathing levels’.
As you expose yourself to the sun, your body tries to cool you off, dilating blood vessels on the surface to give off excess heat. These dilated blood vessels give you a red glow, which in fact is just camouflaging your inflamed acne.
This is compounded by going out in the sun without applying sun tanning lotion, as this can make your skin dry. In turn, the body will attempt to counteract the dry skin by producing more natural oil. The over-production of oil results in acne outbreaks being more likely.
How Light Affects The Eyes
While the skin is the main region of the body that is damaged when sunbathing, another crucial organ that is affected by overexposure to sunlight is the eyes.
Cataracts are a form of eye damage that has been shown to increase in incidence with overexposure to ultraviolet rays. Cataracts exhibit as a clouding of your vision, accompanied by painful eyes.
However, this is not the only eye complaint that can occur due to unsafe sunbathing. Photokeratitis, often described as “sunburn of the cornea”, is caused by overexposure to UVC and UVB waves.
Photokeratitis presents itself with pain in the eye, accompanied by excessive tearing, swollen eyelids and is often described as feeling as if you have a grain of sand in your eye.
Protecting from eye conditions associated with exposure to sunlight is as simple as not spending too long in intense sunlight and wearing sunglasses that are fitted with UV filters when out in the sun.
Overall, don’t forget the power of the sun while basking in it’s beautiful rays! If you’re going to expose your body to intense levels of sunlight, at least be aware of the effects it may be having and take adequate precautions to reduce skin damage. Be on the lookout for any early signs conditions such as skin cancers.
If you have spotted any unusual skin changes or eye problems that may be associated with sun exposure, or are worried after having overexposed yourself to the sun, don’t hesitate to book a consultation at LDC. With future and same day doctor appointments, we can fit into your busy schedule. And with nine GP surgeries located across central London, we should never be too far away when you need to find a “GP near me“.
By George Wall