5 Top Questions about Sunburn

sunburn treatmentSummer is drawing to an end, so you’ll probably find yourself trying to soak up every last bit of sunshine while you can. A few hours in the sun can be great for your health: it can have a positive impact on your exercise habits, vitamin D levels, and improve your overall mood. But sun exposure in excess can cause sunburn, DNA damage, skin aging, cancer, and eye damage such as cataracts. However, sunburns can be avoided altogether with proper preparation.

So whether you’re lounging at the beach or one of the many festivals going on, sun safety should be a top priority. To help you stay safe while enjoying the sunshine, we created this simple refresher guide on sun safety.

What Causes A Sunburn?

When your skin is exposed to the sun for an extended period of time, it eventually burns, turns red, and becomes irritated. This is a result of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays penetrating your skin.

  • UVA rays are responsible for playing a major part in skin aging and wrinkling. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB, damaging the skin cells, and have been known to lead to skin cancer.
  • UVB rays tend to damage the skin’s epidermal layers, causing reddening and sunburn. Unlike UVA rays, UVB rays do not have the same kind of penetrative power: they do not cause permanent damage to the skin cells.sun in blue sky

The risk of sun damage is determined by the strength of the sun’s UV radiation. This is influenced by several environmental factors including:

  • Time of Day – From 10 am to 4 pm daylight saving time, the sun’s rays are most powerful.
  • Cloud Cover – Clouds help block UV rays, but even on an overcast day, 80% of UV rays can penetrate clouds and cause sun damage.
  • Proximity to Reflective Surfaces – Certain surfaces can reflect the sun’s rays, causing sunburns. These include water, sand, concrete and ice.
  • Season of the Year – The sun’s rays are strongest during late spring and early summer.
  • Altitude – It’s easier to burn at a higher altitude since there is less of the earth’s atmosphere to block the sunlight. UV exposure increases by about 4% for every 1000 ft. gain in elevation.
  • Proximity to the Equator – The closer to the equator, the more direct sunlight passes through the atmosphere, leading to sun damage.

Keeping these environmental factors in mind, you can determine your risk for sunburn and take the necessary steps to minimize that risk.

What Are The Symptoms Of A Sunburn?

Sunburns are not immediately apparent and it can take 4-6 hours for symptoms to develop, resulting in red and painful skin. If the burn is more severe, swelling and blisters can develop. Oftentimes, these severe sunburns are also accompanied by flu-like symptoms: fever, chills, nausea, headache, and weakness. After several days, your skin will begin to peel and itch as your body gets rid of cells damaged by the sun.

How Do I Treat My Sunburn?

Sunburn treatment should aim to both relieve the red, inflamed skin in addition to easing the associated pain. Most sunburns can be treated at home. However, seek medical help for severe burns in which the blistering burn covers 20% of the body or burns accompanied by fever and chills.

  • Reduce swelling – Ibuprofen has an anti-inflammatory effect that helps reduce swelling and redness, so as soon you develop signs of sunburn, take a dose of ibuprofen and continue taking it for the next 48 hours.
  • Soothe the burn – To soothe the burn, you can apply cold compresses or take a cool bath. You can also use moisturizing creams, gels, or lotions containing menthol, camphor, or aloe. Helpful hint: Refrigerating the cream first will make it feel especially soothing on your sunburned skin. Do NOT scrub, pick, peel the skin, or break the blisters.
  • Stay hydrated – It is also important to remain well-hydrated because burns of any kind bring fluid to the skin surface and away from the rest of the body. Be sure to drink lots of fluids and watch for signs of dehydration (dry mouth, thirst, reduced urination, headache, dizziness, sleepiness).

What Sunscreen Should I Use?

When preparing for a sunny day, it is important to select a broad-spectrum, protection formulated sunscreen that will protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Let’s explore some frequently asked questions regarding sunscreen:

  • How high should the SPF be? – The SPF number is meant to indicate how long the product can protect someone against sun damage. The difference in protection from SPF 30, to 50, to 100 is minimal; SPF 50 lotion can block out 98% of harmful sun rays, and SPF 100 about 99%. Most dermatologists suggest rather than going for the highest SPF possible, if you stick with an SPF of 15 or 30 and reapply every two hours, your skin will be protected.
  • What is the difference between Sunscreen and Sunblock? – Sunscreen isn’t as thick as sunblock, and tends to feature more protection against UVB rays, causing sunburn, rather than UVA rays. Sunblock is more like a lotion, better suited for people with dry or sensitive skin, and offers more comprehensive coverage than the conventional sunscreen product. However, because there are many kinds of sunscreen that offer complete protection, typically beach-goers only use sunblock on particularly sensitive areas. Look for sunscreens that offer ‘broad-spectrum protection’ in order to keep yourself fully-protected against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Are there certain kinds of sunscreens that should be avoided? – The FDA suggests avoiding spray sunscreens since they aren’t as effective, and staying away from any product with Vitamin A. When applied to skin in the presence of sunlight, Vitamin A may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.

Check out the FDA’s guide to buying sunscreen, and a list of hypo-allergenic products for people with sensitive skin.

How Can I Keep My Skin Healthy?

The key to good skin health this summer is to limit your exposure to UV rays, seek the shade between 10 am and 4 pm, and reapply sunscreen every two hours (even more frequent if you plan on swimming). It is also important to protect your eyes from sun damage by wearing sunglasses. When choosing a pair of sunglasses, you should look for ones with UV protection that block 99 to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays.

If you, or a loved one, have developed a severe sunburn, it may be a good idea to get checked out by a doctor, or seen quickly at an urgent care clinic. At Physicians Immediate Care, our staff of Doctors and Physician Assistants can conduct a complete walk-in examination with no appointment needed. To avoid the line, you can also go online and reserve your time. Click here to see a list of our clinic locations.

We hope that with this knowledge you can make informed decisions this summer and keep your skin looking healthy. Do you have your own sun safety tips to share? Let us know! You can find us on Facebook and Twitter.