Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Do We Get Sunburns?

Have you ever forgotten to put on sunscreen, then regretted it the next day? Many of us know what sunburns look like, but do you know why we get them? Let's start with some background information on how our skin responds to light. Cells called melanocytes in the inner part of your skin produce the pigment melanin, which is what gives color to our skin. Believe it or not, we have about 1000 to over 2000 of these cells per square millimeter of skin! If you have dark skin, that means that your melanocytes are programmed to make a lot of melanin all the time. If you have lighter skin, then you have the same number of melanocytes, but they don't produce as much melanin. If you are albino, then your melanocytes cannot do their job because they are lacking an enzyme (a piece of cellular machinery) which is needed to make melanin. On most days, we do not get exposed to enough sunlight to cause us to develop a suntan. However, a nice day spent at the beach is much different. The darker your skin is, the more light you can withstand without having to boost your melanin production. When your body senses that you need more melanin to protect you against harmful UV rays (UV stands for ultraviolet), your melanocytes kick into high gear and you get a suntan. However, if you stay outside for too long, especially without sunscreen, then your body can't make melanin fast enough to keep up with the amount of UV exposure. This is what causes a sunburn. A sunburn can be thought of as a "clean-up crew" of various blood cells being sent to repair the damaged area. This increased blood flow is what causes sunburns to appear red and feel warm to the touch. Starting to sound a bit like a sunburn? There's one thing missing: why does sunburned skin tend to peel? Your body does its best to repair the UV damage, but if the damage is too great, then the unrepaired cells will simply shed or flake off to make room for new healthy cells to replace them, which allows the sunburn to heal. You may have heard about the relationship between sunburns and skin cancer. Even though the "clean-up crew" and the skin cells themselves usually undo the harmful effects of UV, they may not always do a perfect job. This would allow damaged cells to stay in the skin. Most sunburns will not lead to cancer, but a tiny fraction of them can if they damage a cell's ability to stop dividing. This is why it is so important to wear sunscreen in order to avoid over-exposure to UV light. There are two types of sunscreens: those that reflect UV light (like tiny mirrors) and those that absorb it like melanin does. Everyone gains extra protection from wearing sunscreen, but if you are fair-skinned or albino, it is especially important that you wear it. Remember to put it on around 30 minutes before you go outside so that it has time to stick to your skin. Otherwise, it will rub off on the grass or wash off in the water. [Safety note: some people (especially those with sensitive skin) have allergies to PABA, a chemical in some sunscreens. So if you have sensitive skin, you may want to consider buying a PABA-free sunscreen]. For more information, visit

Little Lion Experiment:

While UV light is harmful in some respects; we need it to stay healthy! This is because our bodies need about 10 to 15 minutes of daily UV exposure to make vitamin D. In fact, many reactions are activated by light (various kinds of light, not just UV). To see how important light is for living things to survive, obtain two small planter pots. Plant about 5 evenly-spaced seeds in each pot. If you cannot purchase seeds at your local hardware or gardening store, you could use seeds from a fresh tomato. Place one pot in front of a sunny window and place the other pot in a dark area (a cabinet would do, with your parents' permission). Remember to water the plants every few days (specific instructions can be found on the seed packet). Check on the plants over the next couple of weeks to compare the seedlings in the light versus those in the dark.