Some people are able to lay out in the sun and achieve that perfect summer glow, whereas others have to cover up so they don’t burn and end up looking like a lobster. Why is that?! Don’t worry, we’re here to break it down for you.
Everyone’s skin tone is different
Your skin tone is determined by genetics and created by melanin. Melanin is what our body naturally produces to protect our skin from UV ray damage when we go out into the sun. Some populations that were exposed to a lot of sun in the past, like those in South America or Africa, have evolved to have more melanin in their skin. This protected them from the sun so that the human species could continue to evolve and survive in those places. If your ancestors are from places that are less sunny, like England, you’ll naturally have less melanin to protect you from the sun because genetically, your ancestors didn’t need that type of protection.
So what does sun exposure have to do with melanin?
If you don’t have much natural melanin and then you go out into the sun (especially without any protection or sunscreen) your skin will change color. When your skin develops that golden tan, what it actually means is that your body is rapidly producing more melanin to help you defend against the powerful and harmful sun. Basically, tanning is your body’s defense mechanism. When you get a sunburn, your skin is telling you that it’s tapped out and no longer capable of defending you from the sun.
What are UV rays, and why are they so harmful?
Why are UV rays so harmful in the first place, and why should we be worried about protecting ourselves from them? When these rays of light hit your skin, it causes your skin cells to mutate. That cell mutation is what leads to skin cancer.
The cells that the UV rays don’t mutate often die. Your skin sends blood to that area, and that shows up on your skin as a sunburn. You can also get hyperpigmentation and freckles from too much sun. Though some freckles can look cute, all of those marks take a long time to fade. And since sun damage is cumulative, you could end up with moles or dark spots from sun exposure you got a while back.
UV rays are invisible but powerful
If you live in the United States, the sun is most powerful between 10 AM and 4 PM, meaning you’re even more likely to get burnt. And remember that those cancer-causing UV rays are invisible and shining through and onto your skin even on a cloudy day. That’s right: you can get a sunburn even if you can’t see the sun. And if you’re a tanner instead of a burner, don’t think you’re off the hook. When you get a tan, you still have UV-radiated cells in your skin, which puts you at higher risk of skin cancer than if you hadn’t gone in the sun at all.
Okay, so how do I protect myself?
To minimize your risk of skin cancer, you should always check the UV index, or the strength of the sun’s UV rays, before you go outside, to assess how much protection you’ll need. A higher UV index means a higher risk of sun damage. But ultimately, the best thing you can do for your skin is wear sunscreen — every single day.
Everyone, of every skin tone, is at risk for skin cancer and hyperpigmentation whenever they get sun exposure, so make sure that applying sunscreen is part of your daily routine! Even if you aren’t laying on the beach soaking up the sun, you still put yourself at risk when you take a walk outside or sit in the sun when you drive. Yep, UV rays can even penetrate through car windows. Now go put on that sunscreen!