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UV Radiation Changes Skin Mechanically Too

October 10, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Pediatric Radiology
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Sun-exposed skin can get dry, stiff, and cracked. Now we know why: ultraviolet radiation.

UV radiation has other obvious effects on skin: tanning and burning in the short term, sometimes skin cancer in the long term. A group of Stanford University researchers has now explored how UV rays affect the mechanical properties of skin—its stretchiness and resistance to tearing.

The outer layer of skin, the stratum corneum, protects the body from infection and other damage. It consists of dead skin cells held together by a layer of lipids.

The researchers, from Stanford’s department of materials science and engineering, bombarded skin samples (donated by Caucasian women) with UVB rays (the wavelengths that are largely absorbed by the stratum corneum and don’t penetrate more deeply). The scientists found that, although the dead cells underwent structural changes, they remained strong.

But the UV radiation loosened the bonds among the lipids and increased the tissue’s tendency to absorb water. As a result, the skin became more vulnerable to cracking and tearing. And some of the changes to the skin structure actually increased what the study calls the “crack driving force”—an internal crack-causing mechanism.

Senior author Reinhold Dauskardt, PhD, explained:

UV exposure doesn’t just make the stratum corneum weaker. It also increases the actual stresses that cause the stratum corneum to fail. So it’s sort of a double whammy, which we didn’t expect.

Dr. Dauskardt, a professor in the materials science and engineering department, led the research team. He was quoted in a Stanford news release. The team published its findings last week in an open-access online article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team discovered, or confirmed, a simple means of preventing the UV-related damage: wear sunscreen. “It’s totally cool,” said Dr. Dauskardt. “You put a sunscreen on the sample, and it causes a huge change in the way the skin is affected.”

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Related seminar: UCSF Radiology Review: COMPREHENSIVE IMAGING


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