Protect And Treat Your Skin Against Sunburns

Protect And Treat Your Skin Against Sunburns

We yearn all winter long for the warm glow of the sun but it can be as dangerous as it is welcomed. That glowing orb can damage your skin, so learn how to protect and treat it when you get caught out in its rays.

Photo by Katatoniq.

Your skin is the largest organ on your body, so protecting it from the sometimes harsh sun is crucial. If you’re out and about, you should arm yourself from the sun and its damaging rays.

The Causes of Sunburns

Sunburns — which are literally burns on your skin — are caused by exposing yourself to too much ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. Contrary to the image of most beach bums we conjure up in our heads, you don’t have to lay out all day in the beach just to get one. It doesn’t take long to get sunburned: you can develop a sunburn after only 30 minutes out in the sun.

There are three types of ultraviolet rays, and although you can’t see them, they are classified according to wavelength. Ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays are the only ones that affect you, while ultraviolet C (UVC) rays never reach the earth. Both UVA and UVB rays are responsible for damaging your skin, causing sunburn and wrinkles, but UVB is more dangerous and can lead to skin cancer. The sun isn’t the only thing that can cause ultraviolet rays: tanning beds produce both kinds of UVA and UVB rays.

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar.

Sunburns are caused by ultraviolet rays, and it doesn’t matter if the sun is out or not. It could be cloudy or even hazy, and as much as 90 per cent of ultraviolet rays can still pass through. In addition, ultraviolet rays can reflect off snow, ice, sand, water and other surfaces, making it almost as bad as direct sunlight. (That’s not to say all sun is bad; limited exposure to ultraviolet rays produces beneficial vitamin D.)

When the skin is exposed to ultraviolet light, it speeds up its production of melanin. Melanin is designed to protect your skin and gives your skin its normal colour, but the extra melanin creates the darker colour of a tan. A tan is the body’s first line of protection against sunburn and skin damage. The amount of melanin is determined by your genes, but most people can’t produce enough to protect the largest organ on their body. What happens next isn’t rocket science: because the skin can’t protect itself well enough, a sunburn is the result.

Unfortunately, certain people and regions are at more risk than others. In the southern United States, regions around the Equator, and places with high attitudes generally offer a higher risk of being sunburned. In addition, light-skinned and fair-haired people can also have a higher chance. Certain drugs like antibiotics and birth control pills can also make the skin more sensitive to the sun.

Preventing Sunburns

Avoid the Sun between 10 and 4: To prevent nasty sunburns, try to stay out of the sun when it is at its strongest, which is usually between 10am and 4pm. Look for shade when you can, and like we said before, the sun isn’t the only culprit you have to watch out for.

Wear Protective Clothing: If it’s possible (and not too hot outside), wear protective clothing like long-sleeved shirts, hats and sunglasses. That can be difficult when it’s really hot, so applying the right sunscreen is important.

Photo by Aine D.

Properly apply your sunscreen: Make sure that all exposed skin uses sunblock with a minimum of SPF 15. The sunblock should protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays. Buying sunscreens with high SPF doesn’t really help; it actually depends on the amount that you put on. A New York Times article says it best:

To get the SPF advertised, you must use a full shot glass on your body. That’s an ounce, which means a three-ounce tube should last, at most, a few outings. … “If people are putting on about half, they are receiving half the protection,” said Yohini Appa, the senior director of scientific affairs at Johnson & Johnson, of which Neutrogena is a subsidiary.

Even if the sunscreen says that it lasts all day long, don’t believe it. In an effort to boost up sunscreen marketing efforts, that may not be true at all, so don’t be afraid to slather all over yourself when you feel it’s necessary. You should reapply sunscreen every two hours, even when it’s cloudy out under normal circumstances.

When It’s Too Late: Soothing Your Burnt Skin

So your skin got burnt anyways. There are a few things that you can do to soothe your skin and ease the pain. While your skin will have to effectively heal on its own (for instance, there’s not much that you can do once your skin begins to peel), there are a couple of things that you can do to alleviate the pain and irritation.

Photo by miss_rogue.

The simple route: Medical sites MayoClinic and WebMD suggest taking cool baths or showers frequently to help with the heat. You can also apply a cool, clean cloth to the affected area. Moisturising lotions (preferably with aloe vera), or just plain aloe vera helps with the burn.

It’s actually possible to use over-the-counter medication such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen to alleviate the pain. If your sunburn is severe enough, don’t hesitate to go to a doctor.

Sunburns can cause a mild fever and headaches, due to dehydration. If this is the case, drink fluids and lie down in a cool, quiet room. Dehydration is also another possible side effect of sunburn or staying out in the sun for too long. So, make sure to keep hydrated while you’re out and about.

If your sunburn is severe enough to have formed blisters, you should leave them alone so that it will not get infected to heal faster. If they do happen to burst by themselves, an antibacterial ointment should be applied to the exposed areas.

Soothing home remedies: Not every home remedy is worth its weight, but we’ve heard in the past that black tea baths can all help soothe your skin while you recover. But be wary of home remedies; some, like those including petroleum jelly or butter, may actually slow down or delay the healing. And remember, none of these are cures. If you’re burnt, your burnt. They just aim to help soothe the pain.

Here’s to enjoying sunshine the right way, without all the nasty things that come with it. Surf’s up!


  • In all my years as an emergency medical professional I have never ever treated anyone with sunburns.

    I’ve treated plenty of people who have suffered from sunburn and numerous people who have been both sunburnt and sunburned, but not once anyone with sunburns. Why? I hear you ask, it’s because there’s no such thing. The word doesn’t exist according to the Oxford English Dictionary and the reason I suspect that is the case, is that there is only one thing being burnt (the person in the sun) and one thing doing the burning (the sun).

    The only time you are likely to suffer “burns” is when the burn is the result of a chemical, liquid or flame and has multiple points of contact with your body. Radiant heat sources tend to cause a single burn ie. if you pick up a hot pan or accidentally lean against a hot combustion heater (unless you’re a masachist or just plain stupid).

    Anyway now that I’ve gotten that out of my system onto the next thing.. Blisters, I say pop-em if you want to.

    There’s no evidence to suggest that bursting blisters leads to increased infection, and there is even a school of thought that leaving them intact may increase the risk of infection given the high protein content of the fluid within. Also chances are they’ll burst anyway and if so, I’d rather burst them in a controlled environment and dress them appropriately than have them burst when I least expect it.

    Just imagine, you’re on your summer singles holiday, enjoyed a bit too much time checking out the talent on the beach and got a tad burnt. The one consolation is that you managed to strike up a conversation later in the bar with a young hottie and they’ve agreed to meet you for dinner. You meet at the designated time in your fanciest outfit, take a seat at the table, lean back and feel the sensation of a warm liquid running down your spine into your bum crack as the days blisters burst soaking through your best outfit. Now instead of enjoying the romantic dinner you have to excuse yourself to the toilet, mop up in the stalls with toilet paper and figure out how to explain it to you hot date.

    Or even worse, what if you made it through dinner and just as you wrap your arms around one another for that goodnight kiss your partners fingers sensually squelch around in the fluid which has just burst forth and is again rapidly heading south for your bum crack. I know what I’d prefer

    Also don’t waste you’re money on antiseptic cream, the radiant heat from the sun is a clean energy source so provided you keep any burst blisters clean they are unlikely to get infected, and the simple no brand moisturiser that costs you 50 cents will do just as good a job as the $10 antiseptic cream.

  • This is obviously an American article, especially given the time of year. In Australia during the summer, the saying is “Slip, Slop, Slap” – Slip (put) on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat. It is now extended to include “Seek” out some shade and “Slide” on some sunnies.



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