Physical Health

Sun Protection

Why is sun protection important?

Overexposure to sunlight can result in painful, red, sunburned skin. A bad burn can also cause serious consequences like skin cancer later in life. Long-term overexposure can cause wrinkles, freckles, age spots, dilated blood vessels, changes in the texture of the skin that make skin look older, and skin cancers. Sun protection is important because it helps to reduce these effects. 

How does the body tan?

Within your skin are cells called melanocytes. When you go out into the sun, the Ultraviolet rays in sunlight stimulate those cells to produce melanin. When melanin is exposed to UV light it oxidizes or turns darker. This darkening is your skin's way of protecting itself against too much UV light. 

Why do people get sunburn?

When you get sunburn, your skin is actually damaged by UV radiation and your body is responding to the damage. You are really experiencing cellular damage from ultraviolet radiation. The body responds to the damage with increased bloodflow to the capillary beds in your skin in order to bring in cells to repair the damage. The extra blood in your capillaries causes the redness. 

How do sunscreens work?

Sunscreens work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering the sun's rays on the skin. They are available in many forms, including ointments, creams, gels, lotions, sprays, and wax sticks. All are labeled with SPF numbers. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection from sunburn. Some sunscreens, called "broad-spectrum," reflect both UVA and UVB rays. They do a better a job of protecting skin from other effects of the sun including photo damage, photo dermatitis, and sun rashes. There are also physical sunscreens and sunblocks or chemical free sunscreens that contain titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, which reflect UVB and UVA and can be used by people allergic to chemical sunscreens.

Choose a sunscreen with a SPF 15 or higher. SPF numbers indicate the length of time one can spend in the sun without risk of burning. When using a SPF 15 sunscreen, a fair-skinned person who normally sunburns in 20 minutes of midday sun exposure may tolerate 15 times 20 minutes (300 minutes) without burning. Apply as much sunscreen as you would a lotion for dry skin. Spread it evenly over all uncovered skin, including ears and lips, but avoiding eyelids. Apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply it every two hours even on cloudy days. If swimming or participating in intense physical activity, sunscreen may need to be applied more often. 

What about self-tanning lotions?

Self-tanning lotions are a safe alternative to the sun. They contain dihydroxyacetone, which interacts with proteins in the skin to produce an orange/tan color that doesn't wash off. When you can see color, the self-tanners have a SPF of 4. This is not enough protection so additional sunscreens should be used. 

Are tanning booths a safer way to tan?

In spite of claims that tanning booths offer "safe" tanning, artificial radiation carries all the risks of natural sunlight. Tanning booths emit UVA radiation, which poses both short and long-term risks to the skin, including cataracts (eye damage), sunburns, skin cancer and premature aging. In addition, there can be damage to the body's immune system and reactions to certain fragrances, lotions, moisturizers and medication. 

How do I treat a sunburn?

In case you forget to cover up and apply sunscreen, the resulting sunburn can be painful as well as dangerous. There are several types of burns and burn treatments. Remember that you may not immediately see the effects of overexposure to the sun. It may take up to 24 hours before the full damage is visible.

The two most common types of sunburn are first-degree burns and second degree burns. First-degree sunburns cause redness and will heal, possibly with some peeling, within a few days. These can be painful and are best treated with cool baths and bland moisturizers or over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams. Avoid the use of "-caine" products (such as benzocaine), which may cause sensitivity to a broad range of important chemicals. Also, Aspirin taken orally may lessen early development of sunburn.

Second degree sunburns blister and can be considered a medical emergency if a large area is affected. When a burn is severe, accompanied by a headache, chills or a fever, seek medical help right away. Be sure to protect your skin from the sun while it heals and thereafter. Most studies have found an association between sunburn and enhanced risk for melanoma, a type of skin cancer, particularly if you suffered severe childhood or adolescent sunburn since there is more time for melanoma to develop over your lifetime 

What are some other ways to avoid sun damage?

The greatest sun damage occurs between 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun's rays are strongest. Even on cloudy days when it doesn't feel hot, or under trees, sunscreen and sun protective measures should be used because sunburn and sun damage to the skin can occur.

Beach umbrellas and other kinds of shade are a good idea, but they do not provide full protection because UV rays can still bounce off sand, water, and porch decks - remember, UV rays are invisible.

Most clothing absorbs or reflects UV rays, but white fabric like loose-knit cotton and wet clothes that cling to your skin do not offer much protection. The tighter the weave, the more sun protection it will offer.

Sun protection is also important in the winter. Snow reflects up to 80% of the sun's rays, causing sunburn and damage to uncovered skin. Winter sports in the mountains increase the risk of sun damage because there is less atmosphere to block the sun's rays. 

Can I make an appointment at Health Services?

Brown students can call 401.863-3475 to make an appointment at Health Services for treatment of sunburn. 

Related Links

For more information about sun protection visit:

Centers for Disease Control

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