An Overview of Sunburns
During the summer season in the United States, outdoor recreational activities are very popular due to the relatively warmer weather in June, July and August.
People enjoy camping, swimming, hiking, fishing, and running. There are also more festivals and fairs for individuals and families during June and July. With all of these activities, people are outside for a considerable amount of time. Sunburns are common skin afflictions during the summer season.
One occurrence of a sunburn is not extremely dangerous; however, having many sunburns can definitely increase your chances of developing skin cancer. The American Cancer Society states,
“Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. About 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed in this country each year. Melanoma, a more dangerous type of skin cancer, will account for more than 73,000 cases of skin cancer in 2015.”
Since the skin is the largest organ of the human body, it’s crucial to protect it and prevent it from developing sunburns.
What is a sunburn?
A sunburn is the result of being exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) light from sunshine. When someone has a sunburn, the skin appears red and it can be very painful to touch depending on the degree of sunburn. The skin may also feel very warm. Any part of the body can be sunburned if it is exposed to the sun. Places as inconspicuous as your lips and eyelids can get sunburned. Increased sun exposure can lead to more freckles, moles and wrinkled skin. A sunburn can take between 2 days to 2 weeks to completely go away; however, the lasting effects on the skin may be permanent.
The pigment in the skin that gives humans and animals their hair and skin color is called melanin. Light-skinned people have less melanin than dark-skinned people. This is why people with fair skin are more susceptible to getting very bad sunburns.
After a person has become sunburned, the skin produces more melanin to protect it from being damaged. After a day or two, the sunburned skins starts to “peel” off. The body is trying to heal itself by getting rid of the damaged skin.
A first degree sunburn usually takes a few days to completely heal. A second degree sunburn (a more severe sunburn) can take from two weeks to two month to completely heal. Even at that point, the skin may look normal again, but the effects of the second degree sunburn may be long lasting (American Academy of Dermatology, 2015).
The Mayo Clinic (2015) provides the following list of the symptoms of sunburns:
- Pinkness or redness
- Skin that feels warm or hot to the touch
- Pain, tenderness or itching
- Small fluid-filled blisters, which may break
- Headache, fever, chills and fatigue if the sunburn is severe
As stated earlier in the article, sunburns are caused by exposure to excess ultraviolet light. Tanning beds can also cause sunburns. The severity of the sunburn depends on a number of other factors. The factors include, but are limited to the following:
- Natural skin color
- Length of exposure
- History of sunburns
After having a sunburn, the damage is already done. Any treatment thereafter is focused at reducing the pain and swelling associated with a sunburn. Witch hazel is a natural astringent that might help clean the skin. Natural pain relievers and herbal remedies may be effective to relieve discomfort. Over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen may help decrease pain. Cool milk compresses might be helpful in soothing and relieving the pain.
Mayo Clinic (2015) provides a list of other methods of treatment for sunburns in the following:
- Cool the skin.. Apply to the affected skin a cool compress-such as a towel dampened with cool tap water, or take a cool bath or shower.
- Apply moisturizer, aloe vera lotion or gel, or hydrocortisone cream to the affected area. A low dose (0.5 to 1 percent) hydrocortisone cream may decrease pain and swelling and speed healing. See our article for more information about aloe vera and skin cancer.NOTE: Topical hydrocortisone cream can have harmful side effects and severe allergic reactions that are not present before using (rash; hives; itching; difficulty breathing; tightness in the chest; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue); acne-like rash; excessive hair growth; inflamed hair follicles; inflammation around the mouth; itching, burning, pain, redness, darkening of the skin, or swelling of the skin.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. Sun exposure and heat can cause fluid loss through your skin. Drinking helps your body recover.
- Treat peeling skin gently. Within a few days, the affected area may begin to peel. This is simply your body’s way of getting rid of the top layer of damaged skin. While your skin is peeling, continue to use moisturizing cream.
- Protect your sunburn from further sun-exposure. Stay out of the sun or protect yourself from sunlight when you go outside.
Other Natural Remedies for Sunburn
Several scientific studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of green tea extract as an effective treatment for sunburn, when applied to the skin, such as Katiyar (2001, 2003) and Elmets, et al (2001). The tannic acid and theobromine found in green tea may be helpful in relieving pain and healing damaged skin when applied topically. Additional scientific research studies have shown that grape seed proanthocyandin extract can be an effective treatment for sunburn (Yuan, et al, 2012). When deciding on natural treatments for sunburn, consult with your trusted physician or health care practitioner.
Sunburns can lead to wrinkled skin, dark spots, and precancerous or cancerous skin lesions. Check your skin carefully for suspicious moles or freckles after repeated exposure to the sun. Precancerous cells can be removed and measures can be taken to prevent cancer skin lesions from forming.
Preventative measures are important to take into consideration when it comes to sunburns. Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun-protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater is recommended, especially if you are going to be spending time outside in the hot sun. The American Academy of Dermatology states that sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or greater helps protects against a high percentage of the sun’s harmful rays. The sun’s rays are the strongest and most dangerous between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. so if it’s possible, avoid sun exposure as much as possible. Whenever possible, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants while hanging out or working outside.
American Academy of Dermatology. (2015). What Causes a Sunburn and Suntan? For the Public. Retrieved on July 20, 2015
American Cancer Society. (2015). Skin Cancer Facts: What is the Skin? Learn about Cancer. Retrieved on July 20, 2015
Elmets C., Singh D, Tubesing K, Matsui M, Katiyar S, Mukhtar H., Cutaneous photoprotection from ultraviolet injury by green tea polyphenols., J Am Acad Dermatol. 2001 Mar;44(3):425-32., Retrieved on July 20, 2015, Retrieved on July 26 2015
Katiyar SK1, Elmets CA. Green tea polyphenolic antioxidants and skin photoprotection (Review). Int J Oncol. 2001 Jun;18(6):1307-13, Retrieved on July 26 2015
Katiyar S., Skin photoprotection by green tea: antioxidant and immunomodulatory effects. Curr Drug Targets Immune Endocr Metabol Disord. 2003 Sep;3(3):234-42., Retrieved on July, 26, 2015
Mayo Clinic. (2015). Definition. Diseases and Conditions: Sunburn. Retrieved on July 17, 2015
Thamlikitkul V, Bunyapraphatsara N, Riewpaiboon W, Theerapong S, Chantrakul C, Thanaveerasuwan T. Clinical trial of aloe vera Linn. for treatment of minor burns. Siriraj Hosp Gaz.1991;43(5):313-316.
Yuan XY, Liu W, Hao JC, Gu WJ, Zhao YS. Topical grape seed proanthocyandin extract reduces sunburn cells and mutant p53 positive epidermal cell formation, and prevents depletion of Langerhans cells in an acute sunburn model. Photomed Laser Surg., 2012 Jan;30(1):20-5. doi: 10.1089/pho.2011.3043. Epub 2011 Nov 21., Retrieved on July 26, 2015
This article is written by Hang Pham. Hang Pham is a Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance Health and Wellness Educator. Hang Pham was born in Hoc Mon, Vietnam. She came to America in 1994, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2011. Hang graduated from Seaside High School with diploma and received her AA in General Studies from Monterey Peninsula College in 2011. She received her BA in Collaborative Health and Human Services from California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) in 2012. In addition to working as a volunteer staff with the Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance, she currently works as a Clerical Aid in the Human Resources Department of Salinas City Hall. The Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance is a registered 501 (c) 3 nonprofit health and wellness education organization. For more information about the Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance contact us or visit our website at www.montereybayholistic.com. All images are copyright free, from www.pixabay.com unless otherwise noted.
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