New research has found sunlight and harmful ultra-violet (UV) radiation continues to damage skin cells hours after exposure to the sun.
The Yale University study discovered that it was melanin – the skin cell pigment that is supposed to shield us and absorb the sun’s UV radiation that causes DNA mutations – that was helping to cause the damage.
The study found that UV light produces a series of chemical reactions which react with melanin. When the melanin deposits the absorbed UV energy into surrounding tissue, it can damage nearby DNA strands, preventing the genetic code from being read properly.
Melanin was found to help in damaging DNA in this way for “only a few microseconds”. But the more mutations skin cells accumulate over time, the greater the chances that one of them will turn out to be cancerous.
Scientists already knew that UV energy could mutate the genetic code of DNA strands but they believed the damage stopped as soon as exposure ended, for example, as soon as someone moved into the shade.
Laboratory tests on skin cells have now found that skin damage was still occurring four hours after UV exposure was stopped. When the scientists continued to investigate they discovered melanin’s crucial role in the process.
It is important people recognise that after exposing their skin to the sun, their skin cells are still under threat from damage and skin cancer even after they’ve covered up or moved inside.
UV light increases the risk of the most serious type of skin cancer. Around 100,000 people are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer in the UK each year while around 13,500 are diagnosed with the more deadly melanoma skin cancer.
This research reinforces current advice governing sun exposure and the potential risk of skin cancers. It is hoped the findings will help in the development of future sunscreen products that might mitigate DNA damage.
Although non-melanoma skin cancer is not always preventable as risks of developing the disease can be increased due to family history, people can significantly reduce their chances of developing skin cancer by avoiding overexposure to UV light particularly during the hottest part of the day, dressing sensibly in the sun and using sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 30.
Stephen Jones is a Senior Clinical and Medical Negligence Solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers UK.
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