The Curious Camper: What is a Sunburn?


Most likely every camper has felt that telltale sting of red on their skin before, but many people never stop to ask just how does sunburn occur in the first place.  Is it an allergy?  It is literally cooking us?  Sunlight is essential to Vitamin D production after all so it can’t be all bad, and yet that blistering angry red skin after a day outside seems to indicate otherwise.  That’s why we hit the books and started researching how sunlight turns to sunburn in us humans, and the results are pretty interesting.  So for all of our curious campers out there, here’s an in-depth look at the red-skin menace and why it happens!

All UV Radiation is Not Created Equal
Before we get into the specifics about sun on skin, it’s important to point out that the radiation in the sun’s ultraviolet spectrum is actually three different waves put together (UVA, UVB and UVC) and only one of them actually causes sunburns.
-UVA waves typically have less energy than their younger brothers (no pun intended), but still has enough strength to punch through the earth’s atmosphere and reach the surface.  All of those long, tanned and handsome types should be grateful, as this type of long-wavelength UV energy is primarily responsible for tans.
-UVB is the middle child and has a nasty bite when it comes to skin damage.  The wavelength and energy are just the right balance to not only slip through the atmosphere but also damage the DNA of skin cells, and this UVB is the wicked culprit that causes sunburns.
-Last but not least is UVC, which while possessing the most energy out of all of the ultraviolet radiation levels pretty much has no impact on our skin, thanks to the absorption of it all by our atmosphere.

Sunlight Burns AND Tans?  UV’e Got to be Kidding!
In fact, we are not; surprisingly the true culprit behind sunburns is not the UV energy itself, but rather your own body’s immune response reacting to the ultraviolet rays.  As UVB begins to destroy the DNA of our cells, the body senses this damage through special skin cell receptors (called melanocytes) and starts producing extra melanin, a natural pigment that’s purpose is to absorb UV radiation before it damages too many skin cells.  For those of us that remember our grade school science classes, the darker the color the more that color absorbs light, hence the “tanned” look.  This protects our skin if the sun exposure is in small amounts over long periods of time because melanin production is a slow process, but when too much UVB happens all at once, skin cells begin to die faster than the body can produce new melanin-filled ones and so the immune system kicks in.  Blood flow rushes to the area to encourage healing and jump-start cell production (hence why sunburns are red and warm), and eventually all of the dead skin cells peel off.  The trouble is that if this skin renewing process occurs too often the DNA damage can be permanent, resulting in skin cancer.  So lather up the sunscreen and be safe!
We hope this has satisfied all of those curious campers out there who are looking for answers, so until next time, respect and enjoy nature!

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