Two Mediclinic dermatologists explain the causes and effects of sun damage.

Q: What causes sunburn?

MM: The sun weakens the bonds between the skin cells in the very top layer of your skin (stratum corneum) by affecting the proteins that adhere the cells to each other. This causes symptoms of sunburn and it’s why your skin peels after you burn.

Q: What happens when you tan?

MM: Too much sun exposure causes you to produce more melanin – the pigment that gives skin colour – and that’s why you tan. With further exposure, it leads to hyperpigmentation, especially in darker skin types.

Q: How does sun damage lead to cancer?

DA: Unprotected exposure to ultraviolet rays (UVA and UVB) damages the DNA in your skin cells. This causes mutation (changes in cells DNA) that can lead to skin cancer and premature ageing.

MM: Melanin-producing cells are in the basal membrane of your skin. Too much radiation causes these cells to multiply, sometimes abnormally way, which leads to skin cancer-melanoma. When UV rays enter the keratinocytes (epidermis cells), they can disturb the genetic make-up (DNA) of the cells. This makes the cells grow rapidly and divide, leading to a cancer called basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma.

Be aware of these early warning signs of sun damage which can lead to skin cancer.

The experts

Dr Matete Mathobela, dermatologist at Mediclinic Cape Gate.

Dr Dilshaad Asmal, dermatologist at Mediclinic Cape Town.

New skin cancer treatment looks promising
No fail-safe cure for skin cancer exists. However, a new treatment called immunotherapy is showing encouraging results, says Dr Asmal. “Immunotherapy is the use of drugs to stimulate a person’s own immune system.”

Q: Why do people who spend a lot of time in the sun look so much older?

MM: Too much UV exposure weakens the blood vessels and damages collagen in the deep layer of the skin. This causes the signs of early ageing – dull and wrinkled skin and easy bruising.

Q: Are some people more at risk of skin cancer than others?

DA: Melanin protects the skin from the sun’s UV rays up to a point. Lighter skinned people have less melanin so lighter skins are more predisposed to skin cancer.

Q: I swear the sun causes my skin to break out! Am I imagining things?

MM: If you have acne, be aware that UVR exposure (that is both UVA and UVB) causes your sebaceous glands to produce too much oil (sebaceous hyperplasia). The oil gets trapped under the skin, which causes: bumps; thickening of the stratum corneum (outer layer of the skin); increased sebum production; formation of comedos (whiteheads and blackheads). 

Q: I can’t avoid the sun entirely. How do I protect myself?

DA: Be sun-smart with these 7 steps:

  1. Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going out, even if it’s cloudy.
  2. Use a lip balm with SPF.
  3. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays.
  4. Reapply sunblock every two hours.
  5. Water and sand reflect UV radiation so always use sunblock in these environments.
  6. Limit time in the sun.
  7. Wear UV-protective clothes, hat, and sunglasses.                      

Visit Mediclinic Infohub for more ways to protect yourself and your kids from the harmful effects of the sun.

Get the most out of your sunscreen. Go to Mediclinic Infohub, where Dr Karen Ordemann, a dermatologist at Mediclinic Milnerton, explains the importance of sunscreen and the ways you’ve been using it incorrectly.

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