Everyone knows you’re supposed to wear sunscreen. Still, many people neglect this important part of their health and skincare routine. People are supposed to wear sunscreen any time they’ll be in the sun, but most only put on sunscreen when they’re at the pool or the beach, or some other time when they know they’re going to be in the daylight for hours at a time. Even those who wear sunscreen regularly might not reapply it as often as they’re supposed to, leaving them covered for only a few hours.
You already know that sun block can prevent skin cancer, but do you know how? Sunscreen is a huge element of travel health, even if you’re heading to cooler climates. Here’s a quick overview of what sunscreen is actually doing for your body, and why you need it any time you’re heading out in the sun:
The dangers of sunburn
When your body is hit with Ultra-violet rays, the radiation actually damages your skin cells’ DNA. It’s this radiation that causes a sunburn, not, as many people think, the heat from the day. The temperature outside doesn’t make a difference when it comes to UV rays, so you need sunscreen all year round.
When there’s a lot of DNA damage in one part of the skin, the cells can begin reproducing out of control. That’s why one of the signs of skin cancer is a mole that’s changing: The skin cells are multiplying, which causes the growth to transform.
According to Cancer Research UK, getting a painful sunburn just once every two years can triple your risk of developing skin cancer. Your body does defend against this kind of damage by shedding affected skin (peeling), but altered cells can make it through these defenses.
What sunscreen does
How your sunscreen protects you comes down to what kind of sunscreen you’re using. Mineral sunscreen (made with zinc oxide or titanium oxide) rests on your skin and scatters UV rays away from your body, working basically like a shield. Chemical sunscreen (oxybenzone or octyl methoxycinnamate) is absorbed into your system, and then takes in UV radiation and dissipates the energy as heat.
Understanding which kind of sunscreen you’re using is important, since there are big differences between how you should use the two. Mineral sunscreens work as soon as you put them on, but need to be reapplied more frequently. Chemical sunscreens last longer, but take a while to begin working – you should put on chemical sunscreens at least 30 minutes before you’re heading out into the sunlight.
What to do if you get burnt
If you do get a sunburn, there’s no need to panic. Getting a sunburn does not mean you’re automatically going to develop skin cancer. Still, it does mean your risk is higher. Here are the short and long-term things you need to do if you get a burn on your vacation.
As soon as you notice yourself getting burnt, get out of the sun. Putting on sunscreen at this point won’t get rid of the burn – that said, if you can’t get indoors for whatever reason, reapplying could stop it from getting much worse. Cover up with hats and long sleeves to prevent further damage, and don’t expose the skin to direct sunlight again until the burn is healed.
Each sunburn you get increases your chance of developing cancer, so be sure to use sunscreen correctly and regularly going forward. Apply any time you’re going out into the sunlight, and reapply every hour (or more if you’re sweating or swimming.)
Finally, if you’ve gotten a number of sunburns throughout your life, it’s probably worth seeing a dermatologist just to get checked. Ask your doctor how to do a self-check, and what characteristics make a mole or growth worrisome. See your doctor if you notice anything suspicious: Skin cancer is usually relatively easy to treat if it’s caught early on.