If you’re anything like me, summertime is filled with countless hours outside. Whether it is swimming, hiking, boating, or running, I am constantly soaking in the sun’s rays to hopefully get that desired golden tan. However, I recently vacationed in Lake Powell and, while I came back with a nice tan, my mom came back looking more like a lobster. Besides not applying enough sunscreen, what caused my skin to tan and my mom’s to burn?
The sun emits ultraviolet light rays that can penetrate the cells that make up our skin and cause damage to our DNA. Suntans form as a result of defensive mechanisms that protect us from the harmful effects of ultraviolet light. This mechanism primarily operates through a pigment called melanin, which absorbs ultraviolet light and releases it in the form of heat. Melanin is produced by special skin cells called melanocytes. As the body is exposed to the sun, the melanocytes produce more melanin. The accumulation of melanin in the skin results in a golden-brown coloration, which we recognize as a suntan.
When our melanin defenses get overwhelmed, ultraviolet rays enter the skin cells and damage their DNA. In response, the body releases special proteins called prostaglandins which causes blood to enter into the area. Prostaglandins also cause inflammation and pain, which are common characteristics of sunburns. However, prostaglandins usually do not form until four to six hours after the sun exposure. Therefore, sunburns don’t appear until long after we were exposed to the sun.
As blood enters the area affected by ultraviolet light, it creates the lobster-red skin pigmentation that we are all too familiar with. With the blood accumulated in a single area, it also increases the skin temperature in the sunburn.
Even though our body has defense mechanisms in place to prevent DNA damage through ultraviolet light, sometimes damage still occurs. To prevent further harm, the body has a failsafe that requires the damaged cells to die. This failsafe is called apoptosis. The accumulation of dead cells creates the layer of dead skin that peels off after a sunburn.
When ultraviolet rays penetrate a cell, it causes DNA damage. DNA is composed of four different building blocks called nucleotides. These nucleotides are adenosine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. Adenosine always binds to thymine and guanine always binds to cytosine. However, ultraviolet light breaks the chemical bonds the hold these nucleotides together and forms thymine dimers. Thymine dimers occur when two thymines bind together, which ruins the shape of the DNA molecule and makes it so it no longer functions correctly.
DNA is essentially a blueprint to make you. It codes for just about everything to include your eye color, hair color, and height. DNA exists in every cell of our bodies, but, in order for it to be effective, it needs to be able to do its job. DNA codes for proteins, which make up your entire body. Without the right structure, it causes the DNA to encode for the wrong proteins and sometimes it prevents the cell from undergoing apoptosis. This results in skin cancer and the cell continues to divide and make new cancer cells. As the cells divide, they create tumors. Tumors can continue to grow and eventually move to other places in the body if not treated in time.
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Resources: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-happens-when-you-get/, https://www.livescience.com/38039-what-causes-sunburns.html, https://www.livescience.com/38039-what-causes-sunburns.html
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