Have you ever stopped to consider what happens when your skin burns or tans?
And other than coating yourself in aloe and tossing and turning in bed to find a comfortable sleeping position, what can you do to manage a burn?
Let’s dig into the science of sunburns — why they happen and what you can do about them.
What exactly is a sunburn?
Both sunburns and tans are inflammatory reactions of the skin that result from exposure to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV radiation can come from the sun or another source, like a tanning bed. How likely you are to burn or tan depends on:
- The type of sun exposure. The intensity of UV radiation is influenced by many factors, including the latitude, time of day, season of the year, density of cloud cover and ozone level. UV radiation gets stronger as latitude gets closer to the equator. The intensity of the sun’s rays peaks between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and during the summer months. However, sun and heat don’t always correlate, as UV rays pass through clouds and fog even on rainy days. Before you go out for a day in the sun, you can look up the Environmental Protection Agency’s UV Index forecast for your desired location. This tool provides daily and hourly information about the risk of UV radiation exposure. It also offers suggestions for protecting your skin.
- Skin phototype. Skin phototype is based on people’s skin pigmentation at baseline, their historical susceptibility to sunburn and their ability to tan. The Fitzpatrick scale is a commonly used scale to describe skin phototype. Skin phototype can help estimate individual risk of burning, and dermatologists also use it to personalize care, including treatment with light therapies.
Why is a sunburn or tan bad?
There are many misconceptions when it comes to the sun. A common one is that a tan is a safe and healthy response to the sun. However, both sunburns and tans represent injury to the skin that occurs when the sun’s rays damage the DNA within skin cells. Over time, these DNA changes, also called mutations, build up and increase the risk of skin cancer.
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. The risk of each type of skin cancer increases with exposure to UV radiation. In fact, just one blistering sunburn in childhood or as a young adult more than doubles the risk of developing melanoma in your lifetime.
I got a sunburn. What do I do now?
Sunburn may look pink or red on lighter skin tones. On darker skin tones, a sunburn can look burgundy or be harder to see.
Sunburns often leave the skin tender to the touch, itchy, warm and painful. A sunburn may even cause skin to blister. When the sunburn is severe, a person may become ill with symptoms such as fever, dizziness, nausea, fast breathing and fast heartbeat. If any of these symptoms arise, you should seek medical care.
A sunburn is temporary and there is no way to speed up the healing process. Still, you can help manage the symptoms with a few steps:
- Stay out of the sun. The first step is the easiest and most important — avoid more sun exposure!
- Cool it down. To relieve pain and the feeling of warmth radiating from your skin, apply cool compresses, such as a soft washcloth soaked in cool water. Or take a cool shower and wash gently with a fragrance-free soap.
- Hydrate your skin. Moisturize while your skin is damp by applying a moisturizer immediately after you bathe to seal in hydration. A sunburn disrupts the skin’s protective barrier, making it more vulnerable to water loss. Moisturizers seal hydration from the outside in and help repair the skin barrier to prevent further water loss. Try to avoid moisturizers with ingredients ending in “caine” which may further irritate the skin or alcohols, which may further dehydrate the skin.
- Hydrate your body. Skin barrier damage allows water to evaporate from the skin’s surface. Hydrate from the inside out by supplementing your diet with extra water in the form of flat or sparkling waters, electrolyte drinks, or water-rich fruits and vegetables.
- Soothe the pain. Aloe vera or calamine are popular skin products used for pain. For extra relief, refrigerate your lotions. For a particularly painful burn, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that you take by mouth, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) are recommended for the first 1 to 2 days.
- Leave it alone. With bad sunburns, avoid popping the blisters or peeling the skin. Allow skin to heal on its own, giving it time to regenerate underneath.
Is all sun exposure bad?
Too much sun exposure over a lifetime, especially in the form of repeated sunburns or tans, raises the risk of faster aging and cancer of the skin.
But sunlight also has benefits in moderation, including the natural production of vitamin D, promotion of wound healing and positive effects on mood through the increase of serotonin. Plus, it’s nice to get outside!
You just need to properly protect your skin. Check out this article from Mayo Clinic cosmetic dermatologist Elika Hoss, M.D., for a deep dive into sunscreens and sun protection.
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