The Skin & Sun Connection: Where There Are Sunbathers, There Are Sunburners

By John Morlino, DO 165788550_7

Recreational sunbathing is a social custom engaged by millions of people in America and around the world. Where there are sunbathers, there will be sun burners. The custom will continue along with advice on the subject.

Skin is the largest organ of the body and the only one directly exposed to the environment. The redness (erythema) of sunburn is a heat reaction. Blood vessels in the middle layer of skin (dermis) open up in response to heat, allowing more blood to follow, so they skin becomes red, usually 4 to 12 hours after exposure.

The darkening effect (tanning) occurs when specialized skin cells called melanocytes produce the pigment melanin.  This darkening of the skin is actually a protective measure against the ultraviolet portion of sunlight.

Your skin type plays a big role in what happens when you are out in the sun. Types range from 1 to 6. Type 1 are fair, light-skinned people usually with red or blonde hair. They burn but do not tan. Type 6 individuals have the darkest skin color; tanning is not really an option for them. They may still occasionally get a burn. The majority of the U.S. population is Type 4. These people have medium complexions, low ability to burn and will tan well.

Stay Protected

In order to avoid a visit to an urgent care doctor, it would be wise to pay some attention to the UV Index, if you plan to be out in the sun for a prolonged period. Developed by the National Weather Service, numbers range from zero (no UV) to 11-plus (extreme UV). At Level UV 3 or 4 the average person would burn in 45 minutes. At Level UV 10, it would take only 10 minutes. These times are without using sunscreen.

One of the most important aspects of skin protection is sunscreen; some call it sunblock or suntan lotion. This brings us to a discussion of skin protective factor, the SPF number. Simply stated, the SPF can be defined as a measure of time you can sunbathe without getting burned. However, this easy to understand explanation is somewhat of an over simplification. You see, the SPF is calculated under strict laboratory conditions not usually found at your local beach or park. The higher the SPF, the greater the ability to block out harmful UV rays.

Here’s an example of how SPF numbers work. Lotion with SPF 4 would block out 75% of UV rays; SPF 15 would block 93%; SPF 30 would block 96% and SPF 50 would block 98%. The important point is that going from a 15 to a 30 does not double the protection; actually it only increases by 3%. Most lotions provide protection to the stronger UVB rays. Look for “broad spectrum” agent for protection against both UVA and UVB. These usually have a rating of SPF 15 or more.

Now, to some, there is something quite compelling about having a tan in the winter when nearly everybody else is pale. Indoor tanning facilities have become quite popular with teens and young adults. Tanning lamps emit 4% to 10% of their light as ultraviolet (UVA, most often). Depending upon bulb intensity, 6 to 10 minutes in a tanning booth is equivalent to an hour or more of outdoor sun. Some reports indicated that indoor UV tanners have a 74% greater risk of developing skin cancers.

The Risk Factors

Medical problems caused by over exposure to the sun may be immediate or delayed. The most common problem is partial thickness (first degree) sunburn. The skin is red, hot and painful without blisters. Treat with cool, wet towels, aloe gel, and over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. For pain in adults, treat with aspirin or ibuprofen. In children, treat pain with acetaminophen or ibuprofen; don’t give aspirin to children under 18 years old. If the skin is blistered, this is a partial thickness (second degree) burn. Don’t break these blisters; go see your urgent care doctor in Middletown or Berkeley Heights.

Sunburn associated with the following symptoms requires immediate medical attention from an urgent care doctor:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Fainting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headache or fever may be a sign of a more serious condition such as sun poisoning or sunstroke

Delayed skin effects include sores that may become cancerous (actinic keratosis) or skin that takes on a rough, wrinkled or leathery appearance. More serious conditions are the skin cancers of the basal and squamous cell types and the melanomas.
The information provided will hopefully make you, shall I say, a better informed consumer of solar radiation. See you on the beach. Don’t forget your sunblock.

John Morlino, DO, has been with eMedical Urgent Care since 1984. He is board-certified in emergency medicine. Dr. Morlino earned his medical degree from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and completed his family practice residency at Union Memorial Hospital, Union, N.J.  Dr. Morlino holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and physics/mathematics. He also is a certified paralegal.


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