Sunburns hurt, and the damage they inflict on your skin is long lasting and dangerous. The redness of a sunburn is caused by clogged and swollen capillaries that supply blood to the skin. Severe burns, caused by the ultraviolet rays in sunlight, damage blood vessels and destroy elastic fibers in the skin, causing it to sag and wrinkle. Excessive sun exposure can also lead to skin cancer, the most common of all cancers.
"The sun is bad for your skin" – or is it? With all the warnings we're given about sun exposure, skin cancer, and aging, you'd think that God was playing a cruel trick on us by placing that large, warm, inviting ball in the sky. Actually, sunlight – in moderate, regular doses – is good and even mandatory for good health and healthy skin.
We need sunlight for several reasons. Sun helps the skin produce vitamin D and heightens its absorption. For these reasons, the bones benefit. A 15 to 20-minute daily walk outside (avoid the most intense times from noon to 1 p.m.) is actually a recommended treatment for some skin conditions like acne and psoriasis.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, which triggers the formation of cell-damaging free radicals, is a primary culprit in premature aging of your skin. Its accomplices are loss of moisture and essential fatty acids, and the body's nutritional status – especially low antioxidant levels.
Prevention is best. Perform outdoor activities before 10 a.m. or after 2 p.m., when the ultraviolet rays are less intense. Remember to wear a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher.
If you've been inside all winter (ensure adequate vitamin D by supplementation), begin exposure gradually with half an hour per day for a week and work up slowly. Remember, sunburn is your body's warning that you've had too much. Guard young children with both limited exposure and by placing a hat on both them and you. Be wary if near water, snow, or metal, as these reflect rays that cause a burn more quickly. You can burn just as easily under clouds on a gloomy day as on a sunny one. Take extra care if you have moles or a history of skin cancer, or are taking medication that increases sensitivity to the sun.
Aloe vera is a natural way to cool burning skin. Keep an aloe vera plant in your house, and when you have a sunburn, break open a leaf and apply the clear gel inside directly to your tender skin. Apply as often as needed for relief. For convenience, use the aloe vera sunburn products available in most drugstores and health food stores. Just be sure that the product you're buying contains more aloe vera gel than water.
Vitamins C and E, both anti-oxidants, help reduce the damage due to free radicals produced through exposure to UV light. Taking a combination of vitamins C and E has been shown to reduce the sunburn reaction, which might in turn indicate a reduced risk for later consequences of UV-induced skin damage. [J Am Acad Dermatol, 38(1): pp.45-8 1998 January]
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