What You Need to Know
Sunburns are most common among adults 18 to 29 years old. In fact, 65 percent of white people in that age group reported at least one sunburn in the past year, according to the CDC. Sunburn and sun protective behaviors among adults aged 18-29 years--United States, 2000-2010. . MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report, 2012, Jun.;61(18):1545-861X.
And this may come as no surprise, but it’s not the heat that’s causing that burn. Excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light does the damage. When exposed to UV rays from the sun, your skin accelerates the production of melanin—a substance that gives pigment to your skin and gives you your natural color. That melanin-in-overdrive is what gives you a tan. And that tan is your body’s natural sunblocker—and the only defense you naturally have against the sun.
But the melanin can only do so much. How much melanin your body can produce is determined by genetics, and most people don’t produce enough to protect the skin well. The eventual result is a sunburn.
But it goes beyond red skin and weird tan lines. In some cases, blisters can form, and the skin may even swell—a condition called edema. In more severe situations, sun poisoning a.k.a. polymorphic light eruption—can occur. Symptoms of this type sun allergy include tiny red bumps or patches of red skin, blisters, hives, and even bleeding.
Studies have shown that getting burned regularly can significantly increase a person’s risk of developing skin cancer later in life. In particular, one study found that women who got five or more blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 were at an 80 percent increased risk for melanoma. Long-term ultraviolet flux, other potential risk factors, and skin cancer risk: a cohort study. Wu S, Han J, Laden F. Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers & prevention : a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology, 2015, Jun.;23(6):1538-7755. Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer and requires immediate attention from a doctor.
Your Action Plan
Be smart in the sun. The easiest way to treat a sunburn is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Apply sunscreen regularly. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using one that is broad spectrum (meaning it protects against UVA and UVB rays), water resistant, and has an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher. You should also consider staying out of the sun during the middle of the day (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), wearing protective clothing, and avoid tanning beds. You can also chow down on some sun-friendly foods, like salmon, which contains omega-3 fatty acids that may help block some UV rays. Dietary fish-oil supplementation in humans reduces UVB-erythemal sensitivity but increases epidermal lipid peroxidation. Rhodes LE, O'Farrell S, Jackson MJ. The Journal of investigative dermatology, 1994, Aug.;103(2):0022-202X.
If it's too late, here’s how to treat your burn:
- Cool Off. Lightly apply a cool compress like a wet washcloth to the burned skin. However, skip the ice. It can damage your skin or irritate the burn even more. If it’s too painful to use a cool compress, you can also run cool water (but not ice cold) over the burn for 10 or 15 minutes.
- Soothe the sore. Try applying some aloe to help reduce skin inflammation. Efficacy of aloe vera cream in prevention and treatment of sunburn and suntan. Puvabanditsin P, Vongtongsri R. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand = Chotmaihet thangphaet, 2006, May.;88 Suppl 4():0125-2208. Skip skin products that contain alcohol—this may dry out skin even more.
- Hit the pharmacy. Taking an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen or aspirin may help. If your sunburn is extremely uncomfortable, you may be able to get a topical prescription from your doc for diclofenac, which according to one study, may reduce pain and swelling. The efficacy and safety of low-dose diclofenac sodium 0.1% gel for the symptomatic relief of pain and erythema associated with superficial natural sunburn. Magnette J, Kienzler JL, Alekxandrova I. European journal of dermatology : EJD, 2004, Oct.;14(4):1167-1122.
- Don’t pop the blisters. If blisters appear, don’t break them. Instead, cover them lightly with gauze. If they do break, apply an antibiotic ointment and then cover them with gauze.
- Avoid tight clothing. This sounds like a no-brainer, but if your hands or arms are burned and swollen, remove any tight rings, bracelets or watches while you heal. Likewise, you’ll probably be more comfortable in loose clothing.
Originally published August 2012. Updated July 2015.