What’s Your SunQ? Little-Known Facts About Fair Skin, Dark Skin, Photosensitivity, and Skin Cancer

Across the northern hemisphere, it’s been a long, hot summer—raising the importance of protecting yourself from the sun’s burning ultraviolet (UV) rays. Most of us know the basics: wear sunscreen, hat and sunglasses, and maybe even long sleeves and gloves; avoid exposure during the hottest part of the day—generally between 10 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.; and EAT YOUR WATER!

But did you know too:

That you’re more at risk of sunburn and skin damage if you’re:

At the beach, a lake, or a pool? That’s because the water and sand reflect sunlight onto the skin from below, as well as the direct exposure you get from above.

In the mountains, because the air is thinner and the UV rays are more penetrating?

Taking many common medications, including:

  • antihistamines (Benadryl and its generic equivalents)
  • birth control pills
  • NSAIDS (such as ibuprofen, ketoprofen, and naproxen)
  • antibiotics (tetracycline, quinolones, and “sulfa” drugs)
  • antifungal drugs
  • diuretics
  • oral diabetes drugs (sulfonylureas)
  • tricyclic antidepressants
  • John’s wort (often taken for anxiety, depression, and PMS)

Consuming celery, dill, fennel, figs, parsley, wild carrots, and lime (watch the margaritas)!

Consuming alcohol (which dehydrates, particularly if you’re drinking it instead of water)

Wearing certain scents or oils, including bergamot, bitter orange, lavender, lemon verbena, musk, rosemary, or sandalwood

Using skincare products that contain alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs like salicylic acid), or tretinoins (such as Retin-A). (Apply these at night, rather than in the morning, and double-up on your protection—sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, long sleeves, etc.—if you’re using these.)

Aging and your skin has thinned—burning, bruising, and tearing more easily

Diagnosed with lupus or other autoimmune diseases that make you sun sensitive

That, over time, you can develop photo allergies? These trigger the body’s immune system, resulting in an itchy rash, rather than a conventional sunburn.

That dark-skinned people can also burn?

Although dark-skinned people, including blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans, naturally produce more melanin, a pigment that gives the skin color and protects against damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays, they can still burn. Their skin can blister and peel, can become hyper-pigmented, and can experience visible signs of aging, just like people with lighter skin color. (And of course, “dark skin” covers a variety of shades, with varying degrees of protection and risk, accordingly.)

The good news is that dark-skinned people are far less likely than lighter-skinned people to get skin cancer; however when they do, it is likely to be deadlier, presumably because it often goes undiagnosed for longer.

That there are two broad categories of sunscreen?

One is mineral, containing titanium dioxide or zinc. This type of sunscreen is considered safe by the FDA, as long it is not in powder form. The minerals provide a physical barrier to the burning rays of the sun.

The second category is chemical, usually containing oxybenzones. The long-term safety of these chemicals is now being questioned because it is now apparent that they are absorbed into the bloodstream at levels that should trigger toxicology studies, which have not yet been done.

That certain foods increase your natural protection from sunburn—and also the effectiveness of sunscreen?

These include foods containing lycopenes—such as watermelon, guavas, and tomatoes—and polyphenols, such as pomegranate. Eat your sunscreen!

How to treat a sunburn if you overdo it?

  • A cool bath and cold, wet compresses will help alleviate burning. Add a generous dose of oatmeal or baking soda to the bath for additional relief, and perhaps a few drops of lavender or chamomile oil. These will also help soothe the skin.
  • Aloe vera, which is easily grown at home, is one of the best home remedies for sunburn. (You can also buy it at the drug store.) If using the plant itself, break off a section and rub the clear liquid on your skin. It will soothe the burn and speed the healing process with less peeling.
  • Tea tree oil, diluted with 10 parts olive or coconut oil to one part tea tree oil, will also soothe the burn and prevent peeling.
  • Your skin is your largest organ. If you’ve burned it, it needs lots of remedial hydration. Drink plenty of water and eat plenty of water-rich foods: fresh fruits and vegetables—watermelon, cucumber, and more.
  • Avoid heavy creams, butters, and petroleum jelly products, which can trap the heat the skin is trying to release and actually force the burn deeper into your skin where it can do more damage.

Being outdoors in nature, relaxing and recreating with family and friends, all offer valuable health benefits. Enjoying these is a key part of modern wellness. Just make sure that your skin doesn’t suffer while you’re at it.


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