Most of us have experienced a sunburn. You spent the day out in the sunny weather, and maybe completely forgot about sunscreen, or forgot to reapply it. Then you’re left with a gift from the sun: red, painful, and perhaps blistered skin.
A sunburn isn’t just a one-off problem though. Risk for melanoma (skin cancer) doubles once a person has had at least five sunburns throughout their life, regardless of how severe the sunburn appeared.
What is a Sunburn?
Sunburns are actually a result of UV damage on the skin - this includes a change in skin color (a tan) as well, since it’s also a sign of skin damage. UV damage actually causes destruction and death of cells in the epidermis layer of the skin - the top layer of skin. This means DNA is damaged, and the classic symptoms of sunburn appear: inflammation and discomfort that presents as red, irritated, sore skin. The resulting cell death is the cause of peeling skin days after the sunburn.
Levels of Sunburns
Sunburns appear in different forms depending on how bad the UV damage is in the skin. Turning slightly pink is still a sign of skin damage - and it’s different for every person for the amount of sun exposure required to produce damage. Skin’s susceptibility to damage from the sun is a factor in who gets sunburned and how bad the damage is - dermatologists actually use the Fitzpatrick Skin Type classification system to assess who has a higher risk for sunburns and skin cancer.
There comes a point when the body can no longer protect against the damage of the sun, and this is when the burn goes from moderate to worse. Have you ever had a sunburn so bad it resulted in blisters? That means the epidermis has been very damaged, and the blood vessels got engorged in the dermis (the second layer of skin). The excess fluid from the blood vessels needs somewhere to go, so a blister is formed.
If a sunburn is bad enough, it leads to sun poisoning, causing pain, blistering, swelling, headache, fever/chills, nausea, dizziness, and dehydration.
Prevention and Treatment of Sunburns
The most obvious prevention of getting a sunburn is staying out of the sun. Of course, that’s typically not possible. The best way to protect your skin is to wear sunscreen (with an SPF of 30 at a minimum) every single day, no matter the weather. Wear a hat to further protect your scalp and face. Since sunburns are a result of UV rays, the sun doesn’t need to be out for you to get burned. If you are spending hours outdoors, reapply your sunscreen every couple hours.
So you didn’t follow the prevention procedures and got a sunburn. What now? Well, there’s no way to actually repair the damage - the skin just has to heal. All you can do is relieve the pain and dehydration. Apply moisturizer (a kind that will not further irritate your skin, i.e. avoid scented lotions) and drink plenty of water to hydrate yourself from the inside.
Take aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil) to relieve symptoms of swelling and pain. If you have blisters, don’t pop them - give them a chance to heal without causing infection. Most importantly, cover up your sunburn with clothing when you go outside again.
If you’ve been sunburned or gotten tan many times, remember that it means your skin has been repeatedly damaged and your chances of getting skin cancer are higher. But before you get too annoyed with the sun, don't forget that the sun also helps us out with a nice big dose of vitamin D!
Sources and More Information
American Academy of Dermatology, “The layers of your skin” https://www.aad.org/public/kids/skin/the-layers-of-your-skin
“How to treat sunburn” https://www.aad.org/public/skin-hair-nails/injured-skin/treating-sunburn
BioElements, “What is sunburn? A look at what happens to your skin” https://www.bioelements.com/blog/combination-skin/skin-sunburn
Fitzpatrick Skin Type (Quiz and Infographic), https://www.arpansa.gov.au/pubs/RadiationProtection/FitzpatrickSkinType.pdf
Huffington Post, “What Actually Happens When You Get A Sunburn” by Amanda L. Chan, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/29/sunburn-infographic-skin-ultraviolet-uvb_n_5711283.html
WebMD, “Sun Poisoning” https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/sun-poisoning#1
Jenny Ewen, BA, EMT