There's A Real Reason Some People Get Sunburns And Others Don't
Now that summertime is here, the temperature is up. That means no more scarves, coats and sweaters.
It’s time to break out the shorts, flip-flops and swimsuits in order to cool off and soak up the sun’s warm rays.
But for some people, it means going through the grueling, stinging pain that is a sunburn.
However extreme they may be, sunburns are at least uncomfortable. Your body feels like it's burning up, your skin is sensitive to touch and even peels or blisters depending on how severe the burn is.
Despite the temporary pain and swelling, most people still go back to the beach only to get toasted again.
How do we even get sunburnt? Why do some people get them while others don’t? (Full disclosure: I’ve never experienced a real sunburn beyond pinkish cheeks.)
We’re here to lay it all out for you with a full, simple explainer just in time for when the UV rays can become dangerous.
How do we get sunburns?
Essentially, a burn is your body’s defensive reaction to ultraviolet radiation.
It’s the same thing with a tan, but you turn red when your initial defenses on the frontline can’t protect you for any longer.
The sun emits different types of UV, with UV-B and UV-C making it past the ozone layer to be absorbed by your skin.
When are we most likely to get burnt?
You’re way more likely to get a sunburn when you’re getting direct sunlight: if you’re close to the equator, at a very high altitude or during the summer when the earth’s tilt directly faces the sun.
More often so at midday, between 10 am and 2 pm, according to Vox.
Vox also notes you can even get burnt on a cloudy day, because clouds block visible light, not UV.
It all depends on the UV index, a number that ranges from 0 to 11 or more. The higher the UV index, the stronger the UV, and the less time you need to be spending basking under it.
You can check the day’s UV index through most weather apps to take proper precautions.
What is our body’s defense mechanism?
A dark pigment called melanin. It’s produced by cells in our skin, and serves to absorb any UV light and transform it into heat.
So when your body senses a lot of sun on your skin, melanin comes to the rescue to protect your cells from getting any damage.
How come it turns red?
UV rays are more powerful than they often feel. So when they strike your skin, they throw the DNA in your skin cells out of whack.
When the cell doesn’t have the right DNA chemistry, they undergo a programmed cell death — essentially cell suicide — called apoptosis.
Your body then sends blood to the area where the cells died as a reaction to the damage.
That’s when you start to look like a lobster.
What about peeling and blisters?
When the burn is really bad, your body forms blisters filled with liquid as an extra protective layer.
However, when skin peels, as gross as it is, it’s actually a good thing.
When UV-radiated cells stay on your skin for too long, they are at a risk for mutation.
So, the peeling process is simply dead skin cells that have reached their expiration date, Gary Chuang, an assistant professor of dermatology at Tufts University School of Medicine, tells Live Science.
Why do burns sometimes turn into tans?
When your cell’s DNA is messed up, melanocytes, the cells in one of the lower layers of your skin start making more melanin in response to the excess light, but it takes about one to three days to set into your skin, Vox says, creating a tan.
How come some people just get tan and don't burn at all?
Everyone is at a risk of getting burnt if you are out in the scorching sun for way too long, without taking any protective measures.
But darker-skinned people naturally have higher levels of melanin, which makes their skin darker to begin with. Additionally, the extra melanin means more protection from UV.
That’s why fairer-skinned people tend to burn a lot more.
Can people build a tolerance to the sun?
According to Vox, to a certain extent, yes. You can build up melanin over time through small, short doses of sunlight that trigger your cells to produce more melanin, resulting in a tan.
Is there a foolproof way to speed up the healing process?
The better question should be how to prevent it. Sunscreen is an obvious answer, with its ability to ward off sunburn and more importantly, reduce the risk of skin cancer.
Look for a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen, which serves as protection from both UV-A and UV-B rays, and make sure you’re reapplying every hour and getting every exposed spot.
If you’re extra sensitive, it doesn’t hurt to bring out a big floppy hat and look good while you’re being safe.
If you already have a burn, though, stay out of the sun.
Furthermore, good, old aloe vera can cool the burned areas down. However, Vox importantly notes there is no proven evidence aloe vera actually helps.
Experts suggest drinking water (since you’re likely dehydrated, too), taking cold showers, using cool towels, moisturizing and taking painkillers for short-term relief.
But if all else fails, science is catching up. A group of scientists have recently discovered the molecule responsible for the pain and itching that inevitably comes with a sunburn, and as a result, came up with a treatment that works on mice.
While it hasn’t been tested on humans yet, sunburn magnets should remain hopeful.
For now, stay safe in the sun!