Editor’s note: This is a safety essay from an Occupational Health Services intern reminding us of a topic, often forgotten during the fall and winter, that’s relevant all year long.
The sun makes all life possible on Earth, yet it’s a well-known fact that it’s also tremendously harmful for your skin. The sun gives off ultraviolet (UV) light, which, as we know, can cause sunburn. While traditionally associated with the sunny days and soaring temperatures of summer, the UV index is a year-long concern. Protecting yourself now is as important as ever.
We often hear that sunburn could lead to skin cancer. It’s important to remember this isn’t immediate but rather a threat that looms far into the future. What seems like a pesky or painful inconvenience in the moment substantially increases your chances for potentially life-threatening disease years later.
“Every time our skin suffers a sunburn, skin cells activate mechanisms of DNA repair and removal of damaged cells. Failure in these mechanisms leads to the accumulation of mutations that eventually hit oncogenic driver genes such as BRAF and NRAS,” said Julio Valencia, M.D., a staff scientist in NCI’s Cancer Innovation Laboratory and a specialist in melanoma and melanocyte biology.
Skin cells with the damaged DNA can begin transforming into cancer cells “once you reach that point,” he added.
Most skin cancers aren’t life-threatening, but sunburn—especially at younger ages—greatly increases your chances of developing melanoma, the most dangerous kind. Melanomas account for the majority of skin cancer deaths. Importantly, skin color doesn’t relate to protection from melanoma: one recent data analysis identified more severe and advanced melanomas in Black men than other groups.
“Melanomas grow slow, silently, and mostly in different places. … [They] could appear in other places than skin, such as mucosal epithelia … and palms, soles, fingers, toes, and nail units,” Valencia said.
Anyone who spends time outdoors is at risk for sunburn, but there are a few factors that make some people more prone to it. For example, someone who has fair skin, red hair, or a history of sunburn has an increased risk. Even people who don’t fit into these categories but regularly work outdoors are also at greater risk. Whether the sun is visible or hidden by clouds, no matter the time of day, anyone can still get burned. UV rays can penetrate cloud cover and can cause sunburn year-round.
Prevention is key, and sunburns can be prevented by taking some simple, necessary precautions. Dermatologists recommend that people cover up with long-sleeve shirts, pants, and hats made from fabric with a tight weave; thoroughly apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher at least every two hours; and avoid exposure to the sun during peak hours of the day—between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. They also advise a yearly skin checkup to help find early skin cancers.
The signs of sunburn include redness, swelling, pain, itching, and blistering. Sometimes symptoms are more severe, including fatigue, fever, nausea, and dehydration. Using aloe and proper medications, like ibuprofen, soon after getting sunburn is important to help it heal so that it doesn't get worse. Being aware of your time spent outdoors, the clothing you are wearing, and your frequency in applying sunscreen are all an essential part of preventing these sunburn symptoms from escalating.
At Frederick National Laboratory, Ron Kunz, safety manager, has been a champion for sun safety among the employee community and encouraged staff to be aware of their sun exposure. His guidance isn’t just delivered from on high, either. He’s got personal experience from a day of bodysurfing in the waters off Florida.
“I did apply sunscreen before I started my day. However, after several hours of enjoying the water and sun, I’m sure I washed away the protection. When I arrived home, I did realize I overdid my sun exposure, but it wasn’t until I was awoken in pain at 2 a.m. did I fully realize how bad my sun exposure was,” he said. “Not only did I have first degree sunburn on my face and shoulders, but I had second-degree blisters across my chest. This was a painful lesson to remember to reapply sunscreen often, especially if you are swimming.”
Even small actions like swimming can affect your protection against the sun. Be aware and take the risk seriously. You only have one skin, so protect it wisely.
Kiersten Ropp is a CRTA student for Occupational Health Services. She does patient care around the office, including venipuncture, preplacements, annuals, and vaccinations.