Why Your Sunburn Hurts

UCSD study pins down the body's response to sunburns

By Lauren Steussy
|  Monday, Jul 9, 2012  |  Updated 1:12 PM PDT
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Why Your Sunburn Hurts

It's been said that pain is just weakness leaving the body -- the same is true for sunburns, a new finding from UC San Diego researchers found.

When a person spends too much time in the sun, their body releases the genetic molecule RNA, which gets damaged by the sun's ultraviolet rays.

If the damaged molecules aren't destroyed, a person can develop skin cancer.

But usually, the molecules are destroyed -- it just wasn't clear just how until UCSD researchers released their findings in Nature Medicine magazine.

Cytokines are the inflammatory chemicals that the body's immune system releases when it senses these damaged RNA cells, according to an article by our media partner, the North County Times.

That tingling burn you feel as you reach for the aloe? That's the feeling of cytokines tending to your sunburn. The chemicals attack the damaged cells.

"In normal people, we think the sunburn response is beneficial," the study's author, UCSD professor Richard Gallo told the NCT. "We want to remove damaged cells that could turn into cancer."

The mechanism has baffled dermatologists for decades.

The researchers' findings may not be the cure for the common sunburn, but it may give victims of sunburn some consolation to know that as much as it hurts, the redness and pain is actually a positive response.

Knowing more about the response to damaged RNA molecules does hold promise for the development of better sunscreen though. Now, sunscreen researchers can focus on protecting RNA molecules so they don't get damaged to begin with.

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