What is melanin and how do sunburns happen?

May is skin cancer awareness month! Learn about your skin color and what happens when you get a tan or sunburn. #STEMvee #STEMinASL

Transcript: Summer is practically here and it’s time to get some sun. But wait, first we all need to put on some sunscreen, it doesn’t matter how easily you tan or the color of your skin. When we go outside and feel the sun on our skin, there is ultraviolet (UV) radiation penetrating our skin. Two main types reach us here on earth, UVA and UVB. Both UVA and UVB can cause eye damage, skin aging, and skin cancer. UVA rays will penetrate deep into your skin and can lead to wrinkling, age spots, dullness, and loss of collagen. UVB will cause tans and sunburns. Both tans and sunburns cause the UV rays to damage the DNA in the cells which lead to cell death. When the UV rays are absorbed by our skin, it activates a certain cell type called melanocytes. These cells are responsible for the color of our skin due to a protein made in melanocytes. These proteins are called melanin and produce a brown pigment. We all have a similar number of melanocytes, but the number of proteins produced inside the cell varies. Those with darker skin will have more melanin production, and those with lighter skin will have less melanin production. This same idea also applies to eye color and hair color! So what does this have to do with the sun and sunburns? Well, the protein melanin also has another role in blocking out the damaging UV rays…up to a point. So those with lighter skin and less melanin get sunburns more often than those with darker skin and more melanin. If you get more UV rays than what your melanin can block, your cells will darken in color, but they will also get DNA damage and die. When these damaged cells are able to escape death, they become cancer cells. Skin cancer is the most common cancer worldwide and having 5 or more sunburns in your life, DOUBLES your risk for melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Keep in mind that everyone can get sunburn even if it is not easily visible and that anyone can get skin cancer. If you notice your skin feels hot, sensitive, and/or itchy after a day in the sun, you may have a sunburn. Those with darker skin have a higher rate of death from skin cancer due to being diagnosed at a later stage. So next time you go in the sun, make sure to put on some SPF 30 to prevent sunburn and aging!



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