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Summer is an amazing time for most swimmers. Warm weather! Outdoor pools! For students, lots of free time! But summer also comes with its hazards. And the most common seasonal health problem isn’t dehydration or heat exhaustion, it’s sunburn.

What is sunburn?

It sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? After all, we’ve all seen or experienced a sunburn before. You’re exposed to the sun, and some time later you find your skin turning red. It becomes itchy or painful. You might develop blisters. And then comes the peeling stage.

But sunburn is actually a complex process. When UV rays from the sun hit your skin cells, it actually messes up the double helix of your DNA, leaving it off-kilter. This is why sun exposure often leads to skin cancer. When the skin senses this occurring, melanocytes (a type of skin cell) start pumping out melanin, which is the pigment that makes skin brownish in color.

This pigment absorbs a lot of that radiation, protecting the DNA. If you have darker skin, it contains a lot of melanin, providing better internal protection. Very pale skin has little melanin, which is why lighter-toned people are especially susceptible to sunburn. People with albinism produce no melanin at all.

At this point, the body knows it’s been burned and goes into repair mode. It increases circulation to the area to help with healing, which causes redness. Inflammation sets in, which is meant to prevent infection. That’s what causes the pain and itching. Peeling is the result of apoptosis, which is the scientific name for cell suicide. Your skin cells will actually die so as to avoid infecting you with cancer.


How much sun exposure is safe?

That depends on a couple of factors, primarily the UV Index and the amount of melanin in your skin.

UV Index

This is a measure of how much ultraviolet radiation there is outside in your area. This measurement changes constantly, so keep an eye out before heading out the door. A UV index of 1 or 2 means it’s safe to do outside without protection, even for very fair-skinned people.

From 3-7 you should seek shade during midday hours and use sunscreen and a hat. At 8 and above, it’s best to avoid being outdoors at midday altogether, and sunscreen and protective clothing is a must. Stick to the shade as much as possible.

Skin type.

The amount of time it takes to burn also depends greatly on your skin type.

  • Type I skin (pale, freckles, doesn’t really tan): can burn in 5-10 minutes when the UV index is higher.
  • Type II skin (pale, only tans a little): can burn in 10-20 minutes.
  • Type III skin (medium tone, tans well): can burn in 15-25 minutes.
  • Type IV skin (naturally dark skin): can burn in 20-30 minutes.

Shouldn’t you aim for a healthy tan?

Healthy tans don’t exist. When your skin darkens from sun exposure, it’s an indication that damage has already been done. While the increased melanin does offer a bit of protection, it’s tiny compared with sunscreen use.

A dark tan on a pale person offers the same protection as SPF of 2-4, while even the lowest SPF sunscreens tend to start at 8. SPF 35 is perhaps the most commonly seen, while SPF 50-100 is also readily available. Don’t let tanning booth ads fool you into thinking that a tan is healthy: it’s a sign that your body is fighting to save damaged skin.

What about Vitamin D?

Yes, your body manufactures Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. But even if you were running around outside without sunscreen all day, it still wouldn’t be enough to last you through the winter. Luckily, getting Vitamin D from UV radiation is unnecessary if you get enough in your diet.

Good sources of Vitamin D include fish, mushrooms, eggs, and fortified dairy and soy products. You can also take a supplement. If your physician determines through a blood test that you are very deficient in Vitamin D, she or he may prescribe stronger supplements or administer it as a shot.

Stay sun safe this summer!

Pick a water-resistant sunscreen with a high SPF that blocks both UVA and UVB radiation, and apply liberally and often. Born to Swim is passionate about the happiness and safety of all swimmers. So get out there, get sunscreened up, and have an amazing time!

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