For many, Labor Day is the “last hurrah” of summer. Whether you’re grilling in the backyard, heading to the lake one last time or taking in a college football game, remember that cooling temperatures don’t protect your skin from sunburn.
“After those miserably hot days when the thermometer was in triple digits, it’s nice to spend some time outdoors this time of year,” said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D., a physician and medical researcher. “But even if it’s not blazing hot, the risk of sunburn remains.”
If anything, the risk is greater, because fewer people remember to use sunscreen, he said. And sunburn does more than hurt—it literally damages DNA.
“A sunburn can feel like punishment for not putting on sunscreen, but new research shows that it’s part of the body’s warning and protection systems,” he said. “It’s basically your skin screaming ‘Stop!’”
Scientists have found that when skin cells are exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, an invisible emission of the sun, a substance inside cells called micro RNA began to fracture and tangle. The damage caused by the UVB radiation makes cells release the RNA, which acts as a signal to nearby healthy skin cells to remove the injured cells.
Sunburns increase the chances for skin cancer. Using sunscreen can help prevent burns and reduce skin cancer risks.
“A sunburn looks and feels bad, but those are mostly side effects of a much more important process,” said Prescott. “Rather than keep damaged cells, which could become cancerous, the body kills them off and makes way for new, healthy skin cells.”
The bright red coloring of the skin shows inflammation caused by the immune system separating sunburned cells from healthy ones. The redness acts as both a warning to get out of the sun and as a shield that tries to keep more UVB radiation from penetrating the skin.
It’s the inflammation that causes the pain we associate with a sunburn, Prescott said.
“A few minutes in the sun is fine,” he said. “But if you’re going to be out for more than 30 minutes, applying UV-protective sunscreen on your exposed skin is worth it.”