The Science of Sun Burn

The Naked Scientists spoke to Dr Anna Nicolaou, University of Bradford
16 July 2006

Interview with 

Dr Anna Nicolaou, University of Bradford


Chris - What is sunburn?

Anna - Sunburn is damage to the skin to the extent that you overwhelm the natural defence of the skin. In the same way that you get burnt when you go very close to a naked flame or a hot hob, it's the same way if you expose yourself to radiation from the Sun. It has a lot of energy.

Chris - Because it's all down to UV isn't it? So what's the difference between UVA and UVB and you even hear people talking about UVC? What is that?

Anna - The Sun sends to Earth different types of energy in different forms of radiation. We're quite lucky that the atmosphere blocks the most dangerous one: UV form C. But UV radiation form B travels through the atmosphere. It carries a lot of energy and mainly causes sunburn and gives cancer eventually.

Chris - So when the UV hits our skin, what's it actually doing to provoke burning and subsequent skin cancer?

Anna - It stimulates a natural process, a natural defence system in our bodies called inflammation. All this redness you get and the pain and sometimes swelling is a result of inflammation. Your body is trying to compensate for this damage that has happened to the skin. This is called inflammation and the redness and everything that comes with it are the classic symptoms. This is how we exhibit sunburn to start with.

Chris - Are some people more prone than others?

Anna - They are indeed, and we don't quite know why this is. We know that some people tan and that some people burn. We know that if some people spend half an hour in the sun, the next day they will have a nice brownish colour. Other people will be red like a tomato. It's all down to the natural ability of our skin to produce a dye that is called melanin. This is produced by a type of cell called a melanocyte, which we all have normally in our skin. But in some of us they give a nice pigment and you tan and in others of us they don't seem to be doing the same job and we get more red. We still don't know what it is that makes these melanocytes behave differently from person to person.

Chris - Your research is looking specifically at prostaglandins. What are they and what's their role in this?

Anna - Prostaglandins are some small compounds that our system is producing to show inflammation. To give you an example, you have a headache and you attribute pain. It's because inflammation is happening. You have an aspirin and you block the headache. So prostaglandins are this naturally occurring compound that causes inflammation and makes you feel bad. This is what we're trying to relate to the melanocyte.

Chris - So just in the last few seconds, what about aspirin and things? What's your research going to hopefully achieve?

Anna - Hopefully we'll be able to see why it is that some people burn instead of tanning, and we'd eventually like to develop a drug or therapy or something like aspirin that people can take and stop this redness occurring. Or we could give them some advice to prevent them from getting in this painful situation.


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