Burning Up: The Science Behind Sunburns

When summer rolls around it can be exciting to swim and play outside every day. These outdoor activities, however, can be harsh on the skin. Different colors of skin handle the sun differently. The darkening of your skin is often followed by a sunburn, if care is not taken. Sunblock must be used regularly to avoid the painful result of a sunburn. Damage to the skin is also done with every sunburn. Many people suffer damage to their skin as children. This affects them later in life. The entire process from exposure to peeling can take a week or two. There are some specific changes that happen in the skin when too much sun exposure happens.


The skin fights back against the sun’s ultraviolent rays, at first. A tan is the result of your skin’s defense mechanism taking action. Your skin, however, can only take so much. A sunburn is the toxic reaction that happens when your skin becomes overwhelmed. The melanin in your skin is a pigment that is made by the melanocyte cells. This pigment absorbs the ultraviolet rays. As it does this, it also releases it has heat. Your skin recognizes when the sun is beating down on it and sends out melanin to the majority of the skin cells.

Skin of all colors is susceptible to sun damage, although dark skin colors have more protection. The number of melanocytes does not change from person to person. Darker skinned individuals simply have more melanin available. Long-term exposure, however, causes a sunburn on all colors of skin. The boundaries of your skin are defined as minimal erythemal dose (MED). This is the total amount of ultraviolent exposure that can be handled before burning takes place.

DNA Changes

Ultraviolet light causes issues for human skin because of the amount of energy it contains. Ultraviolet light is not visible to human beings. The energy contained by light that is visible is much less, however. This energy is overwhelming to human skin. The DNA in the cells of humans can be damaged when the ultraviolet photons make contact with the skin. There are normally orderly bonds that consist of nucleotides. These are quinine, thymine, and adenosine. Something called a thymine dimer forms when two thymine nucleotides the shape of the DNA molecule is contorted. The affected cell dies through a process known as apoptosis. This is caused by an overdose of radiation. The skin peels to avoid the accumulation of mutated cells. Cancers of the skin are caused when the mutated cells fail to release with this shedding, and stay behind multiply. This may take many years to present.

Turning Pink

Once the skin cells have been compromised, the body responds by sending extra blood to damaged area. This reaction is meant to assist in healing. At this point the skin begins to swell, and a pink color starts to emerge. The degree of a sunburn can vary from mild to severe. Mild sunburns result in a pink color and mild peeling over the course of a few days. Thermal damage can also reach the magnitude of second or third-degree burns. This is not unlike burns from exposure to a hot oven or fire. In second-degree burn cases, liquid filled blisters form on the surface of the skin. This is the body’s way of protecting the skin. The bubbles act as a barrier while the skin underneath heals.

Cancer and Protection

There are varying forms of skin cancer than can result from sun exposure. Melanoma is the most dangerous one. When a person experiences five or more sunburns in a lifetime, the chance of melanoma doubles. This can be difficult to avoid, especially when we are kids. The outdoors is a favorite place to be during summer vacation.

Sunscreen that reflects the ultraviolet radiation is the best prevention. Products that do this contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Protective clothing is also a great way to avoid too much sun exposure. You do not have to sweat it out in a long sleeve shirt in 90 degree weather. A wide-brimmed hat does wonders. You can also opt for an umbrella while relaxing on the beach.

Most of us have experienced a sunburn at one time or another. It can be a painful experience. The redness and inflammation are definitely indicative of an injury to the skin. Severe sunburns are similar to regular burns from heat sources. They damage the skin and require a lengthy healing process. The DNA of the skin cells can be changed when burning occurs. The damaged cells can die off or leave with the peeling process. Sometimes, however, they do not leave. This causes a reproduction of mutated cells that results in various forms of skin cancer. Protect your skin with sunscreen or clothing to save yourself pain future health issues.

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