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Sun exposure causes long-term skin damage

March 20, 1997

By Melissa Harlow

Lariat Reporter

For many students, the first week back after spring break is a rude awakening from a week of social relaxation, mental meltdown and fun in the sun.

Though the sun has appeared somewhat nonexistent this week, several students had more than a fair share of it over the break. Some had so much sun that souvenirs from the trip are those along the lines of uneven tans and painful burns.

'There is no such thing as a healthy tan,' said Dr. Barton D. Schmitt, of Mercy Health Care, Arizona (MHA), a health answers hotline, in an article posted on the Internet.

Sunburn results when the amount of exposure to the sun or other ultraviolet light source, such as tanning beds, exceeds the ability of the body's protective pigment, melatonin, to protect the skin, Schmitt said.

'I went to the beach with some of my sorority sisters, and most of us came back a little burned, but not so much that we were uncomfortable,' said Amy Hays, a Dallas sophomore.

It is now recognized that sunburn and sun exposure should not be taken as something insignificant. Deaths have resulted from sun exposure and temporary disability is experienced by millions of sunburned people each year.

A sunburn is not immediately apparent.

'By the time the skin starts to become painful and red, the damage has been done,' said Dr. Paul Taylor, also of MHA, in an Internet article. The pain is worst between six and 48 hours after sun exposure.

According to an Internet article there are three types of sunburn: a mild sunburn, leaving the skin a deep pink color. Skin is hot and there is slight burning. A moderate sunburn, where the skin turns red with visible strap lines, leaves some pain, stinging and itching. And a severe sunburn, where the skin turns bright red, and blisters, fever chills or nausea persist.

Repeated sun exposure and suntans can cause premature aging of the skin, sagging and brown sunspots. Repeated sunburns increase the risk of skin cancer in the damaged areas while each blistering sunburn doubles the risk of developing malignant melanoma, which is the most serious type of skin cancer, Schmitt said.

The risk for sunburns is higher for people with fair skin, blue eyes, and red or blonde hair. The risk is also higher for people taking medications including sulfa drugs, some antibiotics, some water pills and even Benadryl, Schmitt said.

'I have to be careful whenever I am in the sun. I have burned easily in the past, due to my light complexion, and it's not a fun experience,' said Tom Dominick, a Cleveland junior.

Fortunately, preventing sunburns is an easy feat, once proper precautions are taken. Choosing a suntan lotion should be determined by the level of the skin's sun sensitivity. A sunscreen with SPF 4 theoretically allows four times more sun exposure before a person burns. SPF 15 multiplies 'burn-free' time by 15.

Sunscreen should be re-applied every two hours and more frequently when swimming or perspiring of participating in any activity that would tend to rub off the sunscreen.

The best prevention from sunburn is to avoid the sun's rays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., or for any long period of time during the heat of the day.

'Protect your skin by using sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more when exposed to the sun,' Taylor said.

The lighter your skin, the higher the SPF number should be.

To work well, doctors suggest sunscreen be put on 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure, every hour to hour and a half one stays in the sun, and after swimming.

Also, wearing muted colors, such as tan, rather than bright colors, provides some sun protection.

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