Suntans and Sunburns at the Beach; There’s a Big Difference

Alliance / iStock /

Alliance / iStock /

We’ve all seen it, that bright red, radioactive glow someone always seems to be sporting at the beach or around the pool. Sure, we all want the look of bronze Gods or Goddesses, but you have to be smart about it.

What is a Suntan?
Suntans come from melanin pigment which is produced in your skin from a reaction to ultraviolet light from the sun. The pigment absorbs UV radiation, protecting your skin cells from UV damage. This is a slow process and cannot be achieved in one day. It takes hours for this effect to happen and should be spread out over several days.

What is a Sunburn?
If your skin has not produced enough melanin to protect the cells they will absorb all the UV rays. The flow of blood to these cells will increase causing redness and pain.

How to Get One and Not the Other
Sun tanning, while not recommended by skin experts, is something that’s not going away in our culture. If you must tan, do it wisely and slowly. The newbie at the beach with the radioactive glow, besides the goofy red look, is not only going to be in pain but risks severe skin damage that could result in skin cancer later down the line. Exposing yourself to the sun for a few hours or less a day is the best way to slowly increase the melanin pigment and produce a tan

Sunburns are preventable by staying out of the sun of course. They can be prevented or slowed by using sunscreens of varying strengths. Opaque Sunscreens such as zinc oxide are what you usually see on a lifeguard’s nose. They aren’t practical for the whole body but block the sun’s rays from sensitive areas.

Sunscreens and SPF
Other sunscreens that most of us use absorb the rays and are rated by the SPF or Sun Protection Factor on the label. A simple formula for SPF is: if you can stay outside in the sun for ten minutes without damaging effect, a sunscreen that has SPF10 will allow you to stay out for 100 minutes (10×10) without burning. The SPF value is also dependent on you putting enough of the sunscreen on, so spread it well. This is not an exact science and should not be taken as one. The higher the SPF, the better the protection

You sweat, you lose protection. You jump in the water, you lose protection. Even waterproof sunscreen is not infallible. It helps to use it when in and out of the water but should be reapplied liberally. Don’t wait until you’re out in the sun to apply sun screen: all sunscreens should be applied at least thirty minutes before exposure.

Clothing Helps
Of course covering up is the next best alternative to just staying out of the sun altogether. Long sleeves, long pants, and sun-blocking hats help tremendously. Not only can you cover up to protect yourself, but some clothing actually has protection built in. There is a rating system for clothing with protective properties called UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor.) The testing protocols are different than SPFs but clothing with a UPF of 40-50+ are considered to block 97.5-99% of UV radiation.

We’re all Different
Yes some people are darker than others, and some tan or burn easier than others. In some races Melanin production is continuous so the pigment is always there, constantly protecting the skin cells from UV radiation. We all have varying degrees of melanin production and so some tan easier and some not at all. The SPF ratings apply to everyone differently and should just be used as base guidelines and not fact. The bottom line is, let’s be careful out there.

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