We’ve all been there. We have fallen asleep at the beach, lounged too long by the outdoor pool, missed “that spot” with sunscreen, or forgot to put the sunscreen on all together at some point in our lives. And yes, we have all suffered the consequences. Sunburns, as anyone who has experienced one can tell you, are NOT fun. They come in various flavors from a little pink to the blistering, peeling, painful, scary sunburns. However, since we are all human, and we do make mistakes, this is a short explanation on what to do when sunscreen protection is overlooked, as it so often is in this day and age.
I, unfortunately, have lots of experience in this matter. With my fair skin, and without protection, it takes me anywhere from zero to five minutes to turn a nice shade of bright red under the New York summer sun. Even with sunscreen, I must reapply liberally almost every hour to ensure that I don’t start looking like I belong in the lobster boil, rather than at the lobster boil. So, what are the things I have learned over the years?
First, reapplication of sunscreen is probably the most important measure in preventing sunburn. With the new FDA system, sunscreens are clearly labeled with directions such as apply sunscreen so many minutes before sun exposure, reapply sunscreen every number of hours or after so many minutes of exposure to moisture. So, the most important lesson is reapply, reapply and reapply (did I mention reapply?). Second, though sunscreens with an SPF claim over 50 were rampant in the market before the new FDA labeling system, there is no reliable testing to prove their claims of SPF one million. Therefore, it is more prudent to buy a lower SPF sunscreen (30 to 50 is the best), and instead of putting faith into a high SPF without reapplication, actually reapply the lower SPF in a timely fashion to provide more reliable protection. Again, didn’t I say reapplication was the most important lesson?
Since we have now thoroughly covered the reapplication of sunscreen, we will move on to what to do once the damage is done. Sunburns are sneaky. They tend not to have actual symptoms at the time of the burn, but four to six hours later one will start noticing pinkness and pain, and 12-24 hours after, peak symptoms will occur. However, those of us who are lucky enough to turn red on the spot, we should remove ourselves immediately from the sun exposure. I like to duck into an air-conditioned space, hang out for maybe a half hour, and reapply sunscreen before venturing outside again. Usually this method allows my skin to recover and I will not end up with sunburn. If one does get sunburned, the area of sunburn should not be re-exposed to the sun until the redness, swelling, and any other symptoms have subsided (and sunscreen should be applied before exposing the damaged skin and then . . . reapplied throughout the time exposed).
Treating uncomplicated sunburn (one without peeling, blistering, pain or swelling) is actually quite straightforward. Most of the housewives tales and home remedies prove quite useful in combating the pinkness and mild heat/pain/itch. A cool compress and taking slightly cooler showers/bathes (never outright cold) will provide soothing relief and decrease any swelling associated with the sunburn. Applying very moisturizing lotions containing aloe will rehydrate the affected area, because dehydration of the skin is your worst enemy (dehydration leads to peeling). Avoid scented products! I have made this mistake more than once and have paid the annoying consequences. After sunburn your skin is damaged (no matter how intact it looks) and severely dehydrated meaning there is a high chance there are many tiny “micro-fissures” in the skin that are undetectable, unless of course, you apply a scented protect upon which the stinging begins. If the pain and inflammation is bordering on the severe side, there are many over-the-counter, very low dose steroid creams that may be used to manage the symptoms, so just ask your pharmacist which is recommended for you.
However, if the sunburn is severe enough to warrant seeing a dermatologist, please do so! The dermatologist will most likely prescribe a higher content steroid cream such as triamcinolone 0.1% which should be applied twice daily to the affected area (courtesy of Dr. Ellen Marmur). Sunburns are not a matter to be taken lightly, as they do represent serious damage to your skin which can lead to premature aging due to sun exposure, precancers known as actinic keratoses, and perhaps even skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma if enough damage is done. So protect your skin from sun damage, and if you are a little unlucky, fixing the damage properly is an essential part of maintaining skin health.
Margit Lai Wun Juhasz
Mount Sinai Medical Student