Sunburn Prevention and Treatment

Sun exposure

Sun damage builds up over a lifetime. The early signs of sun damage include sunburn, tanned skin, and increased freckling. These effects are eventually followed by wrinkling, early aging, and sagging of the skin, or more serious medical problems such as skin cancer. Studies reveal that strong, irregular sun exposure is a greater risk factor for melanoma than long-term exposure.

Skin cancer (such as melanoma, squamous cell, and basal cell) is the most preventable and common cancer, accounting for nearly half of all cancers in the United States. Ultraviolet (UV) exposure increases the risk of skin cancer among people of all skin types, especially those with fair skin. People with red or blond hair and fair skin that freckles or burns rather than tanning are at greatest risk for developing skin cancer.

Prevention

To reduce the risk of sunburn and the effects of sun damage, observe the following precautions:

  • Minimize exposure to the sun between 10 am and 4 pm, when ultraviolet light is most intense.
  • Do not sunbathe or lie out in the sun.
  • When outdoors, wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts and pants.

Sunscreen

Sun protection factor (SPF) numbers help determine how long one can stay in the sun without burning. The higher the SPF, the more protection a particular sunscreen provides.

Experts recommend using sunscreens of SPF 15 or higher. Consider using a higher SPF sunscreen in early spring or when taking a southern vacation in the winter. Sunscreen should also be broad-spectrum, meaning that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going out in the sun; remember the earlobes.
  • Apply lip balm or lipstick containing SPF 15 or more.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming and strenuous activities, since water and sweat can lower its effectiveness.
  • Light reflects off sand, water, and snow. Even on a cloudy day, skin is still exposed to 80 percent of the sun’s rays. In winter, use SPF 15 or higher while skiing, skating, and participating in other outdoor activities.
  • Sunscreen is now commonly found in moisturizers, makeup, and other cosmetics. Check the packaging for an SPF to be sure.

Other considerations

  • People with acne should avoid applying oily sun-protection products. Sunscreen gels and solutions are generally the best options. Look for products labeled “oil-free” or "non-comedogenic."
  • Certain prescription medications such as isotretinoin, tetracycline, doxycycline, tretinoin, adapalene, and others can cause skin to sunburn more easily. If unsure, contact the prescribing clinician or a pharmacist.
  • Apply insect repellent 15 minutes after sunscreen, otherwise the chemicals in sunscreen may increase the absorption of DEET, the active ingredient in most bug sprays.

Tanning

Tanning is not recommended. Studies have found that tanning in booths is associated with a higher risk of melanoma. Tanning booths give off the same mixture of UVA and UVB rays as the sun and are not a safe alternative to tanning outdoors.

To appear tan without the harmful side effects, try a self-tanning product. Self-tanners contain a chemical that temporarily stains the outer layer of the skin and produces a natural-looking tan color. Reapply to maintain the tan every three to seven days. Many tanning salons now offer sunless tanning booths in which color is evenly applied to the body in a mist or spray. Sunscreen should still be used with self-tanners.

Sunburn care

Sunburned skin is red and painful. Be very careful of what is applied to burned skin because chemicals from creams and lotions will penetrate the skin more easily. Also, sunburns can make it easier to get dehydrated. To treat a sunburn at home, try the following:

  • Drink more fluids.
  • Use mild soaps in the shower.
  • Apply cool compresses for temporary relief.
  • Moisturize using a thick cream or petroleum jelly.
  • Avoid products that numb the skin, such as those containing ingredients that end in –caine like benzocaine or lidocaine.
  • Try an anti-itch product, such as plain calamine lotion or Sarna lotion, for comfort.
  • Take aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce inflammation.

When to contact a clinician

Contact a clinician if the sunburn does not begin to improve after two days or if any of the following symptoms are experienced with the sunburn:

  • nausea or vomiting
  • chills
  • tiredness or fatigue
  • weakness
  • blistering