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What the Sun Is Actually Doing to Your Skin

Even if you understand the importance of protecting yourself from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, there’s a good chance you’ve gotten a sunburn at some point. But do you know what’s actually going on in your body to make your skin redden, dry out and eventually peel? Once you know what happens during and after a sunburn, you may want to step up your efforts to prevent them in the future.

What’s Behind That Tan?

The sun emits different types of UV rays – UVA rays are responsible for premature skin aging, while UVB rays are responsible for sunburn. When UVB rays penetrate our skin, they cause damage to our cells. Over time, this cell damage leads to skin cancer. To stop this, the body releases melanin, which absorbs the UVB rays to protect other cells nearby. As sun exposure continues, the body produces more melanin to continue shielding us from the sun’s harmful rays.

Increased levels of melanin are why we tan after being out in the sun, because melanin is responsible for the pigment (color) of our skin. Although many people think of a tan as a sign of good health, tanned skin is really our body’s natural reaction to skin damage. This is why the the Fund’s Skin Cancer Control toolbox talk, which is part of our annual Sun Sense Plus campaign, makes it a point to note that tanned skin is damaged skin.

Treating Sunburn

If you do get sunburned, following these tips can reduce your discomfort and help you heal safely. Apply moisturizer or aloe vera gel. Take aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce swelling. Drink plenty of water. Soak in a cool bath. Do not pop blisters – let them heal on their own.

What Causes Sunburn?

Even with melanin, our bodies can’t stop all the UV rays from penetrating our skin and damaging our cells. The body’s natural immune response is to try to repair this damage by sending more blood to the area. The result is expanded blood vessels and inflamed, red skin as the body works to save its damaged cells. Skin cells that aren’t repaired during this process die off and are replaced by new cells. These dead cells leave your body as peeling, flaking skin in the days following a sunburn.

Depending on your skin type, you may burn more easily than someone else, but everyone is at risk for sunburn and skin cancer regardless of their skin type. Even though your skin heals itself by shedding dead skin, getting sunburned does increase your risk for skin cancer.

Protect Yourself from the Sun

Apply 30+ SPF sunscreen at least 20 minutes before you go outside. Reapply every two hours, more often if you are sweating heavily or decide to go swimming. For more information on sunscreen best practices, order the Fund’s All About Sunscreen card.

Seek shade. Depending on your skin type and the UV index that day, you could get a sunburn in as little as 15 minutes.

Wear protective clothing and eyewear that blocks UV radiation, such as hats, sunglasses and long-sleeved shirts or pants. Clothing with built-in ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) is a good choice.

Based on how our bodies react when exposed to the sun, it’s clear that we should be trying to limit our contact with harmful UV rays. Fortunately, it’s easy to take the proper steps to protect yourself so your body doesn’t have to.

The LHSFNA raises awareness about the dangers of skin cancer and heat stress through its Sun Sense Plus campaign. Along with distributing sunscreen, lip balm, neck flaps, cooling cloths and insect repellent to Laborers across the U.S. and Canada, the Fund also provides posters, Health Alerts and other educational materials to make sure members know how to avoid skin cancer and heat stress and recognize early signs and symptoms. These products and materials are available free of charge to LIUNA District Councils, Local Unions and signatory contractors for distribution to LIUNA members. For more information or to order, visit our online Sun Sense Plus 2018 campaign page.

[Nick Fox]

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