The friendly sun. It gives us light and warmth, and helps our bodies to synthesize Vitamin D. It also gives us a bonus we can well do without: ultra-violet damage that causes our skins to age, plays havoc with our immune system and, in unfortunate cases, even leads to skin cancer. Here’s why you should – and how you can – protect yourself.
One way or another, we can’t do without the sun. We seek its light and its warmth (and millions all over the word literally worship the sun). The benevolent sun provides us with that light and warmth in the form of visible radiation and infra-red radiation. It also provides us with a bonus we don’t need – ultra-violet rays that cannot be directly perceived by our senses but which can cause silent, deadly damage to our skins.
If you’ve believed all this time that wrinkles, sags and pouches are the inevitable result of the years taking their toll, you’ve not given credit where it is due! It is the ultra-violet rays of the sun that are the primary and most powerful cause of premature aging all over the body. And, since it’s your face that’s exposed more than other areas, that’s where the damage is worst.
HOW UVR AFFECTS YOUR SKIN
It starts with a supposedly harmless tan. To protect itself from the sun, the skin produces a tan: a black-coloured pigment called melanin is released into the outer layer of the skin, the epidermis, which helps to absorb the sun’s ultra-violet radiation (UVR). The cells that produce the melanin are called melanocytes and all types of skin (whether fair or dark) have the same number of these cells. However, the ability to produce a suntan (and therefore skin protection) depends on the production rate of the melanocytes. A fair-skinned person has a low production rate while a dark-skinned person has a high production rate; so, a fair-skinned person will usually burn if exposed to the sun while a dark-skinned person will tan.
Skin types are accordingly divided into six groups – Type 1 which always burns and never tans, progressing to Type 6 which always tans and never burns. Type 1 people are the most susceptible to the adverse effects of the sun; Type 6, who are mainly black African and Caribbean, are at least risk.
A tanned skin is damaged skin. Typical skin damage results in sagging, wrinkling, leathery texture and blotchy discoloration. Such skin loses its strength and elasticity and dries up, resulting in all the symptoms of natural aging.
Sunburn, which is a result of increased pigmentation, manifests itself in the thickening and darkening of the skin, redness, swelling, or severe eczema which might finally result in skin cancer (melanoma). Skin cancer is the most serious threat from the sun. UVR has the ability to completely kill the DNA (the genetic material) in the skin cells, thus allowing possible cancerous mutations. Once established, a cancerous lesion may take a couple of months to grow, or as long as ten years; and only early diagnosis and treatment will prevent the cancer from spreading to the other parts of the body.
The skin is also an area of immunologic activity and UVR can affect a person’s immune system but destroying the special Langerhans cells which are scavenger cells for the immune system.
IS UVR DAMAGE ON THE RISE?
Ultra-violet rays are of three types – short wave Ultra-violet-C (UVC), medium wave Ultra-violet-B (UVB) and long wave Ultra-violet-A (UVA). UVC is screened out of the atmosphere by the ozone layer, but UVB and UVA both reach the earth surface. It is UVB that is the main culprit in skin damage.
The ozone concentration in the earth’s stratosphere does act as a shield, blocking the amount of surface UVB. But today, there is increasing worldwide concern over the depletion of the stratospheric ozone by various pollutants, including commercial products like aerosols and refrigerants. (These products use inert chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons which destroy the ozone layer.)
Artificial sources of UVR include various types of lamps that are used for recreational tanning – especially in the west – and phototherapy, used in the treatment of certain diseases. Unfiltered light from tubelights can resemble sunlight and is a potential source of artificial UVR.
IS A LITTLE EXPOSURE A DANGEROUS THING?
Some amount of exposure to ultraviolet rays is inevitable – whether through natural or artificial sources. But even brief periods of exposure can result in cumulative damage over a period of time.
The amount of exposure varies according to climate and geographic location. For instance, the nearer a place is to the equator, the hotter and stronger the sun will be, and the greater the risk of skin damage.
Increasing altitude also results in greater UVR exposure. Again heat, wind, cloud cover and rainfall determine the exposure to UVR. It is often mistakenly believed that UVR exposure decreases when the sky is overcast. In fact 80% UVR can penetrate of heavy layer of clouds. So, ultra-violet rays manage to reach your skin’s surface every day of the year.
Which are the worst times to be out in the sun?
Anywhere in the world, the sun is at its strongest between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and this is the period when its rays will do the most damage.
HOW TO SAVE YOUR SKIN?
- Don’t go out or stay out in the sun unless it is absolutely essential or unavoidable. At least try and stay indoors between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- Protect yourself adequately. Wear clothes made of tightly-woven natural fabrics as far as possible. Long sleeves are advisable if you are going to be exposed to the sun for some time.
- Wide-brimmed hats should form an essential part of your picnic wear.
- Use a sunscreen before venturing into the sun. It’s your first line of defense. Though there are not too many sun-protection agents available in the country, Paraminol is believed to be quite effective. Especially after a swim, a sunscreen should be re-applied every 40 minutes, even if the product professes to be waterproof. A thicker application of sunscreen lotion or cream will provide better protection against the sun.
- A new medical lobby also suggests the topical application of vitamin E as a sun-protection agent. It has gained a reputation as a successful antioxidant that can decrease cell damage and inflammation. It is known to be non-allergenic and a moisturizer.
- Beta-carotene, which is present in green leafy vegetables and brightly-coloured natural produce like carrots, oranges, mangoes and papayas, is said to act as a sun-protection agent. Beta-carotene builds up in the skin’s fatty tissues and absorbs UVR, thus acting as a tanning pigment.
- Indoors, the potential hazards from tubelights can be avoided by either using a shield or by placing butter paper on the underside of the tube, which will result in safer, bounced lighting.
Everyone should treat the sun with respect. Fair-skinned people, those with a number of moles, those with a history of severe sunburn and those with a family history of melanoma should be a little more careful. It is a common belief that Indians, due to the dark colour of their skins, are immune to skin damage from the sun’s rays. No one is immune. Too much sunlight can affect the darkest of skins. Why take the risk?