Summer may not officially be here till June 21st, but temperatures across much of the United States say it has already arrived. With the sun comes the fun: pool parties, beach days, outdoor sports and much more! But with it also comes the need to protect your skin from sunburn.
In this guide, we’ll look at more into the short-term and long-term effects the sun’s rays can have on your skin. We’ll also look at some practical tips you and your family can follow to keep sun damage at bay.
Sunburn pain 101
A sunburn is skin damage from the sun’s UV exposure. Most sunburns cause mild pain and redness and affect only the outer layer of skin (first-degree burn). The red skin might hurt when you touch it, but these sunburns are often mild and can usually be treated at home.
Skin that is red and painful and that swells up and blisters could mean that deep skin layers and nerve endings have been damaged (second-degree burn). This type of sunburn is usually more painful and takes longer to heal.
General symptoms include:
- pain or discomfort
- dry skin
- skin blisters
- skin rash
- flaking skin
- skin peeling, cracking or scaling
- skin darkening
Other problems that can be present along with sunburn include:
- heatstroke or other heat-related illnesses from too much sun exposure
- allergic reactions to sun exposure or to sunscreen products
- vision problems, such as burning pain, decreased vision or partial or complete vision loss
Your skin type can affect how easily you become sunburned. People with fair or freckled skin, blond or red hair and/or blue eyes tend to sunburn easily.
Your age also affects how your skin reacts to ultraviolet (UV) rays. The skin of children younger than 6 and adults older than 60 is more sensitive to sunlight.
Long-term problems include:
- increased chance of developing skin cancer (remember: the American Academy of Dermatology notes that overexposure to these rays can lead to skin cancer and that 1 in 5 Americans will develop it in their lifetime)
- increase in the number of cold sores
- cataracts from not protecting your eyes from direct or from indirect sunlight over many years
- increase in problems related to other specific health conditions such as lupus
- changes to your skin such as premature wrinkling or brown spots
How to protect your skin sunburn
- Apply sunscreen before you leave the house. Look for sunscreen options that have a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or more. Remember to apply it to all areas of skin exposed to the sun. When selecting a sunscreen, look for options that are broad spectrum. This means they will help protect your skin from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. If you’re going to be swimming or sweating – even on cloudy days – remember to reapply sunscreen every 2 hours.
- Protect your skin from the sun by seeking shade. From 10 am to 3 pm, the sun’s rays are at their strongest. If you’re at the beach or the pool, spend time under an umbrella. A good rule of thumb: remember that if your shadow seems shorter than you are, it’s a good time to soak up some shade.
- Wear clothing that protects your skin. Tightly woven fabrics and loose fitting options are good choices when it comes to preventing sunburn. Consider long-sleeved shirts, pants and wide-brimmed hats before leaving the house. Baseball hats can provide a bit of protection as well. And be sure to wear protective sunglasses when possible.
How to treat a sunburn
- Use cool, damp cloths on sunburned areas. Try this for up to 15 minutes at a time throughout the day. Applying coolness to your skin will help draw some of the heat away from your skin.
- Amp up your water intake. When you experience sunburn, you also experience dehydration. Drink extra water to cool you down from the inside out.
- Take cool baths or showers. This technique will also help draw some heat away from your skin and provide you with pain relief. Gently pat your skin dry as you get out of the tub. Leave a bit of moisture on your skin before applying a rich emollient. This will help your skin hold in more moisture.
- Take a pain reliever. NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce some of the redness and swelling. You may experience other sunburn symptoms such as headache and fever that can also be relieved with NSAIDs.
- Apply aloe vera or moisturizers that have aloe vera. Aloe vera is known to help skin heal. If you have access to an aloe vera plant, crack open a leaf and apply the gel-like substance directly – but gently – to your skin. If you choose to use a lotion with aloe vera in it, be sure to avoid options that contain petroleum, benzocaine and lidocaine. Petroleum can trap the heat in your skin. Benzocaine and lidocaine can irritate your already fragile skin.
- Don’t pick at sun blisters. If your sunburn leads to blisters, avoid picking at them or trying to pop them. You may have a higher degree of sunburn and need more time to heal. The blisters will help your skin do that and will help protect you from infection.
Learn more about how to treat a sunburn here:
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The team at Pain Resource updated this post in June 2019 with new information and resources.