The Long-Term Dangers of Ultraviolet Rays


How Much Damage Can a Sunburn Really Do?

Summer is here, school is out, and the days ahead are sure to bring more than a few picnics, campouts, and beach parties. But with the promise of sunshine in the great outdoors comes an inconvenient threat: sunburns. Redness and swelling; blisters and chills; cold showers, followed by copious amounts of even colder aloe––there really is nothing pleasant about a sunburn. And the worst part is that for all the discomfort your day in the sun might cause, the real trouble is the damage you can’t see or feel––yet.

In the long term, exposure to these ultraviolet rays not only alters the DNA of the skin cells, it also leaves the immune system weakened, compromising the line of defense that would otherwise protect us from significant health threats. In fact, the Skin Cancer Foundation suggests that a history of five or more sunburns doubles your risk of developing melanoma, which is one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer. 

The good news is that sunburns are preventable, and proper skincare and sun protection habits can have a significant impact on the health and longevity of your skin. 

What is a Sunburn?

Actually, it’s an immune system response. Our bodies are naturally equipped with a substance called melanin, a pigment that gives the skin its color and absorbs dangerous UV rays before they cause damage. The level of melanin we produce varies from person to person depending on genetics, but when the amount of UV exposure exceeds the protection provided by melanin, the result is a sunburn. 

As Dr. Saira George, a dermatologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center, explains, “[when] the skin cells get more UV exposure than they can handle, the damage may be beyond repair, and the cells die off. Blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow and bring immune cells to the skin to help clean up the mess. All this causes the redness, swelling and inflammation we associate with a sunburn.” 

Risks of Sunburn

Unfortunately, the consequences of a sunburn go far beyond the discomfort of this initial immune response. While the visible effects will heal, some cells will be forever altered, resulting in DNA mutations that have the potential to become cancerous. This risk is even further complicated by the damage UV rays can cause to the immune system, making it less capable of fighting off the cell mutations. It’s a slow process, one that can take 20 years or more, but the Skin Cancer Foundation warns that “even one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma later in life.” 

Typically, a small amount of sun exposure is a good thing, and has been linked to benefits such as vitamin D production, improved mood, and better sleep. But overexposure, defined as anything more than 10-15 minutes without sunscreen, can cause irreparable harm to the skin. Some of the most significant risks are:

Skin Cancer

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer, and accounts for nearly 3% of skin cancers, and 75% of skin cancer deaths. Non-melanoma skin cancers, namely basal cell carcinomas, or squamous cell carcinomas, are known to be less deadly, but can still cause problems if left untreated. 

Premature Aging

Skin changes due to light exposure, also called photoaging, is a process that speeds up the natural chronological aging of the skin. Experts believe this exposure damage is responsible for 90% of the visible skin changes we see as we age. Ultraviolet rays have been proven to cause DNA changes to the cells in the dermis layer of the skin, which is where collagen, elastin and other structural fibers work to keep the skin looking youthful and smooth. As damage builds up over time, the skin is left defenseless against wrinkles, fine lines, and pigmentation changes.

Compromised Immune System 

Even though the immune system ramps-up initially, UV exposure has actually been shown to suppress immune system function in the long term. According to a study on ultraviolet radiation and immune response, UV exposure “inhibits antigen presentation, stimulates the release of immunosuppressive cytokines, and induces the generation of lymphocytes of the regulatory subtype.” Ultimately, scientists believe this immunosuppressive behavior is significant because it contributes to the induction of skin cancer.


What You Can Do

Experts agree the best way to reduce your risk is proper skincare and sun safety. Choose a sunscreen with 30 SPF or higher, make sure it’s broad spectrum (to block both UVA and UVB rays) and apply generously (from head to toe) every two hours (or after swimming or sweating). Remember that light exposure doesn’t just happen when you deliberately engage the outdoors, it can happen in your car, in your office, or even at home, so it’s important to apply sunscreen daily no matter what your plans may be. When possible, wear a hat and sunglasses, cover up with clothing, and seek out shade. 

Even with these protections, we know that ultraviolet exposure is inevitable, so it’s a good idea to make choices that support healthy immune system function. That means getting plenty of rest, moderate daily exercise, and eating a balanced diet, rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. To learn more about maintaining a healthy immune system, read our blog The Little Known Secret to Healthy Aging.

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