Enjoy the fun, beware the sun

Heidi Rostant reminds readers to protect their skin from the harmful rays of the sun. Use sunscreen and tan wisely

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Did you know that more than 50% of vacationers choose their destination primarily to get maximum sun exposure? Well, if you are not smart you could ruin your vacation with too much sun, even on the first day. It is even more dangerous now than it was a few years ago, to expose yourself to the sun. There has been a substantial decrease in the ozone layer above the earth’s atmosphere. This is the layer that acts as a protective filter to save us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

How Skin Works

The skin is one of the most amazing organs in the human body. It is made up of very specific cells and tissues, whose purpose is to act as the boundary between you and the world. Therefore, it is loaded with sensors; it also has a very tough layered design so that it can handle abrasion and sunlight.

The epidermis is your interface with the world. It has two main layers, the inner, which is living, and the outer, which is dead. The dead skin cells of the outer layer are what we actually feel and see, and they are constantly flaking off and being replaced by new cells pushing outwards.

The living, inner layer is called the malpighian layer. It is here that the sun affects the skin during tanning. In the malpighian layer reside cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes produce melanin, the pigment that is the source of tanning. Tans come from melanocytes, whose numbers vary depending on the part of the body, and range from about 1,000 to more than 2,000 per square millimeter.  The number of melanocytes are roughly the same, no matter the race; the blondest whites have as many melanocytes as the darkest blacks. Colour differences are due solely to the amount of melanin produced and the nature of the pigment granules. When the skin becomes tanned on exposure to sunlight, the melanocytes do not increase in number, only in activity.

How Tanning Works

When you get a tan, what is actually happening is that the melanocytes are producing melanin pigment in reaction to the ultraviolet light in sunlight, which stimulates melanin production. The pigment has the effect of absorbing the UV radiation in sunlight, so it protects the cells from UV damage.

If you are Caucasian, melanin production takes a fair amount of time. That is why most people cannot get a tan in one day. You have to expose yourself to UV (the sun) for a short time to activate the melanocytes. They produce melanin over the course of hours. By repeating this process over five to seven days, pigment builds up to a protective level in the cells.

In other races, melanin production is continuous, so the skin is always pigmented to some degree. In these races, the incidence of skin cancer is much lower because cells are constantly protected from UV radiation by melanin.


Ultraviolet rays are the invisible “burning” rays that cause sunburn and even cancer. There are three types of UV rays:

• UV-A: Besides sunburn, these rays contribute to premature aging, wrinkling and skin cancer.

• UV-B: These are stronger than UV-A rays and contribute to premature aging, cataracts and skin cancer, and can even alter your immune system. They are felt mostly in the summer months, at higher altitudes, and by people who live or vacation in countries closest to the equator.

• UV-C: The strongest and most dangerous of UV rays. Luckily, they are normally filtered by the ozone layer and never reach Earth.

The amount of UV you are exposed to changes with the time of day, seasons, weather and location. In the Caribbean, the time of day affects us most, since UV is greatest when the sun is highest in the sky (between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.). It is important to know that the longer we are exposed to the sun, even during the course of our daily activities, the more likely we are of being sunburned.

Treating Sunburn

Pain Relievers 

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help relieve sunburn pain. Avoid aspirin, which dilates blood vessels and can make the skin hurt more.

Topical Relief

Aloes soothe and cool sunburned skin. This natural product is available throughout the Caribbean and is one of the most remarkable healing substances known. Applied locally, aloes encourages skin regeneration and may be used directly on burns.

Soaps and Antiseptics 

Use antibacterial and antimicrobial soaps and antiseptics to prevent infection.


Keep your skin from drying out and tightening. Avoid oil-based products and ointments.


• It is better to prevent sunburn than treat it

• Do not apply petroleum jelly, ointment or butter to the burn. They make the symptoms worse and do not allow air to assist in healing

• Do not wash burned skin with harsh soap

• Do not use over-the-counter creams and sprays that may contain benzocaine. Benzocaine often causes an allergic reaction, especially in children

• For sunburn pain, use cold compresses, and cool baths

• If blisters are present, dry bandages may help prevent infection.

Sun Damage

The sun is responsible for at least 90% of the appearance of skin aging. It is the most destructive as well as the most preventable of the causes of wrinkles. It causes the skin to take on a leathery texture, with permanently etched deep creases. No one wants their face to look and feel like a thickened hide! You can prevent these deep sun-induced wrinkles by applying a high-protection sunscreen and by always wearing a hat.

How Sunscreens Work

Sunscreens either block or absorb ultraviolet light. All sunscreens are labelled with an SPF, or Sun Protection Factor. The SPF acts like a multiplying factor. If you would normally be fine in the sun for 10 minutes and you apply an SPF 10 sunscreen, you will be fine in the sun for 100 minutes. In order for the sunscreen to work, however, you have to apply a lot of the product, which has to stay on. You should apply it about half an hour before going out in the sun (or the water) so it can bind to your skin. If you don’t, then it is very easy for the sunscreen to wash off.

Sunscreen Guidelines

• Choose a sunscreen of at least SPF 25 to 30, especially in bright sunlight

• Be sure that the sunscreen you use is water-proof, particularly if you swim or perspire a lot

• Be sure your sunscreen protects against UVA as well as UVB

• Reapply your sunscreen every 1 1/2 to 2 hours when outdoors.

It’s never too late!

Let’s face it, if we’re honest, most of us would admit we have not practised the best of sun habits over the years. In the past nobody had the knowledge that is available today. You can start taking the proper precautions now. Do enjoy your outdoor sports, but always protect yourself from the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays. You will keep healthy and stay looking young.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.