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Sunburn Guide: Home Remedies and How to Prevent It

Last updated on : April 30 2018

sunburn guide and remedies

Introduction and Contents

At The Kewl Shop, we're concerned about our health and beauty and take protection from the sun seriously. In this article, we take a hard look at sunburn and how to treat and avoid it.

We summarise why the sun is such a significant contributor to skin damage and what you can do to protect yourself. And we identify what causes it, who is at risk, and what to do when you get too much exposure.

Here is an overview:


Why We Need To Be Careful Of The Sun

There are a lot of misconceptions about the sun and its effects. 

Experts warn about the dangers of exposure and the importance of taking precautions to avoid damaging the skin. They claim even short periods result in premature aging and some forms of skin cancers.

These warnings are true.

Not only does sunburn alter the condition and health of your skin. It also poses severe and sometimes life-threatening health and medical risks, including cancer.

In extreme cases, it causes second or third-degree burns requiring hospitalization or surgery.

Your eyes are not immune either. If you’re not careful, exposure can lead to eye irritation and decreased eyesight over time.

Moreover, many of these problems may not materialize until several years later. 

Sunlight is dangerous, and its effects are cumulative, meaning that even small doses, over time, can have severe longer-term impacts.

What Is Sunburn?

sunburn on shoulder

Exposure To UV Radiation

Sunburn is what occurs when the skin reacts to extreme ultraviolet (UV) radiation and becomes red, inflamed, and sometimes painful. 

The damage can range from mild to extreme. In some cases, it can be life-threatening or lead to long-term health complications. 

Sunlight is the primary source of UV rays, but not just on sunny days (see below). Tanning lamps and sunbeds are other sources of harmful UV radiation.

Cold Or Cloudy Days

Getting burnt on a cold or cloudy day is possible. In fact, almost 80 percent of UV radiation passes through clouds, reflects off snow and ice, sand, and other surfaces resulting in just as much damage as direct sunlight.

Types Of UV Rays

According to the American Cancer Society, there are three main types of UV rays in sunlight:

  • UVA raysultraviolet rays penetrate deeper into the skin and are responsible for premature aging and wrinkling (photoaging). They also cause long-term skin damage and some skin cancers. Most artificial tanning beds emit high doses of UVA.
  • UVB rays – these rays emit more energy than UVA rays and are extremely damaging to skin cells. UVB rays cause most skin cancers including black moles (malignant melanoma). They are considered dangerous and to avoid at all costs.
  • UVC rays – produce far more energy than all of the UV rays. However, they cannot penetrate the earth’s atmosphere through sunlight. Studies suggest that UVC rays and skin cancer are not linked. 

Symptoms

Sunburn presents itself as visible, ultraviolet radiation damage to the skin and is often warm or hot to the touch. Redness, blistering, pain and swelling are the key symptoms. 

It often causes a lot of pain and discomfort and can happen faster than you think. 10 to 15 minutes is usually enough time to start seeing the effects. With symptoms ranging from mild to severe, depending on the level of exposure.

In mild cases, symptoms may not appear until 6 hours or more. Within 24 hours symptoms should peak and usually subside within 3-5 days.

In moderate to severe cases, symptoms may peak within 48 hours and can last for several days or weeks. They come with intense discomfort, fever, sickness, and even heat stroke.

In extreme cases, severe medical complications such as dehydration, skin and blood infections, sun poisoning, shock, and even death occur.

Look out for these symptoms with mild to moderate damage.

  • Skin redness
  • Itchy or painful skin
  • Dry patches or rashes
  • Swelling and tenderness
  • Tingling in the skin
  • The skin may feel hot to the touch
  • Peeling and flaking skin

Severe burning or sun poisoning have symptoms including:

  • Blistering skin
  • Pain and tingling sensation
  • Swelling and redness
  • A headache and dizziness
  • Nausea and sickness
  • Chills and fever
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance
  • Yellow drainage from blisters

The burned skin may also feel warm or hot to the touch.

This warmth comes from the increase in blood flowing to the damaged areas. The skin initiates an inflammatory response to the ultraviolet radiation as it attempts to heal itself and blood rushes to the exposed area causing a slight elevation in temperature. 

The Skins Defence Mechanism - Melanin

In less than 10 minutes of exposure to UV radiation, the skin initiates a defensive mechanism.

It releases a pigment called melanin produced by skin cells called melanocytes. Melanin is dark in color and is effective at absorbing sunlight, dissipating over 99% of absorbed UV radiation. We see this production of melanin as a tan. 

However, when the defensive system is overwhelmed, it cannot produce the pigment quickly enough. The skin reacts toxically in what we know as sunburn.

Long-Term Risks

premature aging on the skin

Sunlight emits radiation, and although the skin has defense mechanisms in place to protect it, including regeneration of new skin cells, there is only so much it can take.

Too much UV radiation leads to a breakdown of the connective tissue and permanent damage to the skin cells. This breakdown can later form cancers such as melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma. 

Sagging skin, wrinkles, liver spots, hypopigmentation (irregular light patches), hyperpigmentation (irregular dark patches), and solar lentigines (sun spots) are other symptoms of too much. 

Premature Aging

When UV rays penetrate the skin, they destroy collagen and elasticity causing the skin and tissue to become weak. This weakness results in fine lines, deep wrinkles, red veins and freckles on the face, age and liver spots, and sagging skin. 

Ultraviolet radiation is responsible for 90 percent of visible age signs in most adults. The result is that you appear much older than your actual age. And the effect is cumulative over long periods of time. 

Discolored Pigmentation

Sunburn leads to skin color changes through a process called photoaging. 

Photoaging primarily darkens the skin, an infliction known as hyperpigmentation or produces discolored spots known as macules. Excessive UV amounts cause light colored patches known as hypopigmentation.

These conditions appear on the arms, back of the hands, chest, and the upper back in addition to the face.  

Damage to the Eyes

Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation can cause immediate and long-term damage to the eyes. 

When the eyes become stressed and impaired from UV light, they may become watery, painful, or gritty.

Longer-term damage to the retina, lens or the cornea leads to clouded sight and blurred vision

Risk of Infection

Those painful blisters from the sun can be dangerous. Looked after well, they may be painful at first but should subside over time. 

However, if left unchecked they are susceptible to bacteria and staph infection, particularly if they rupture. 

If your skin shows signs of blistering, keep the affected area clean, cold, and dry to reduce the risk of infection. 

Pain, swelling, redness and yellow discharge may indicate a sign of infection. If any of these symptoms occur, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Skin Cancer/Melanoma

Skin cancer usually develops in areas exposed to sunlight including the face, ears, lips, scalp, neck, arms, chest, hands, legs, and upper back area. 

Women are more likely to develop skin cancer on the legs than men.

Skin cancer appears in several forms from a small growth, a scab that crusts over but refuses to heal, to the emergence of a new mole or changes in an existing one. 

You should speak with your doctor if you notice any changes to your skin, new growths, sores that won’t heal, moles, or suspicious dark spots.

healthy and malignant moles

Are You At Greater Risk?

Almost everyone is at risk, but some people are at higher risk. 

Those with weaker immune systems such as children, the elderly and those who may be undergoing cancer treatments may be at higher risk of developing skin cancer. 

People who have radiation therapy or who may be taking photosensitizing medications may also be at a higher risk of becoming sunburned.

People who live or who take regular vacations in areas with high altitudes also run the risk of becoming burned easily. The intensity of UV radiation increases with elevation.

The risk of skin cancer is also much higher for those with fair or light-colored skin. A darker toned skin has less chance of developing damage. The lower risk results from higher amounts of melanin. These natural levels of melanin help protect against harmful UV radiation

Although no one is immune to the risks of harmful ultraviolet radiation, there are some precautions you can take to reduce it.

Prevention

sun protection spf

In many cases, the long-term effects of too much sun may not show up until years later. 

However, there are precautions you can take to cut down your risk of exposure to harmful UV radiation. With enough care, you can avoid complicated health issues later on down the line. 

Consider these tips and skin care insights.

Use a Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen or Sunblock

Sunscreen and sunblock products contain ingredients that absorb, reflect, or block UV light to suppress the risk of UV burning. 

They are rated by a sunburn protection factor (SPF) based on how well they block out harm-causing UV rays. The higher the SPF rating, the more protection there is against damage to your skin. 

Use a sunscreen with an SPF rating of 30 or higher. Broad-spectrum sunscreens are the best option because they protect against UVA and UVB rays. 

Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going into the sun and again 15-30 minutes later. 

Depending on the type, you may need to reapply after swimming or excessive sweating.

Wear Protective Clothing

Tightly woven fabrics such as canvas and cotton do well in protecting the skin against UV rays. 

Wide-brimmed hats 3-inches or greater can offer protection for your scalp, face, ears, and neck. And sunglasses that block UV rays are the best options for protection. 

Clothing and hats that are darker in color will most likely offer more UV protection than lighter clothing, and in fact are cooler to wear.

Avoid Indoor Tanning Beds

Avoiding artificial tanning beds can help prevent the development of skin cancer. 

Indoor tanning beds have proven to cause premature aging, wrinkles, liver spots, and an increased risk of melanoma and skin cancer

Even a few minutes spent in a tanning bed can significantly increase your risks of skin cancer.

sunscreen infographic

Treatment and Remedies

There are no treatments to repair the long-term effects of ultraviolet radiation. However, you can mitigate and soothe your symptoms by acting fast and adequately.

Apply A Cold Compress

Apply a cold compress to the skin as soon as you notice signs of burning. A compress like this reduces further burning and starts to contain damage immediately.

The more immediate the therapy, the more effective the outcome in preventing further damage to the skin. Remember, the sun can lead to permanent and irreversible harm, so it’s important to act quickly.

Follow With Topical Treatments

Topical treatments such as soothing oatmeal baths and Burow solution soaks are recommended to help alleviate some of the symptoms. You can also apply Vitamin E oil or Aloe Vera to the skin to soothe inflammation or Hydrocortisone cream to reduce redness and itching.

Keep the affected area cold and be sure to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

Take Care Of Blistering

The blisters on your skin contain a natural serum that assists in the healing process. So leave them alone and allow the skin to heal itself. 

Do not puncture or deliberately pop them because this increases your risk of infection. Popping or opening blisters prematurely can slow down the healing process.

Breaking them can also be extremely painful and cause further inflammation of the skin.

Watch For Peeling

You can expect your skin to start peeling within a few days.

Peeling is your body ridding itself of damaged skin cells as the surface begins to heal the formation of new skin cells.

Use a cold, wet compress or take cooling baths when this occurs. Allow the skin to peel naturally and do not further peel it away. Pat dry with a clean towel. Do not rub or cause friction to avoid further irritation.

You can apply a light moisturizer or hydrocortisone cream to cut down on any itching or inflammation.

See A Doctor When Necessary

If you see no improvement in your symptoms within a few days, see your physician for professional treatment.

When To Call A Doctor

If your sunburn is severe with painful, swollen blisters covering a large area of your body, then seek medical attention urgently.

You should also seek immediate medical attention if you have a high fever, chills, headache, excruciating pain, dehydration, dizziness, confusion, or nausea. 

Your doctor may recommend aspirin, ibuprofen, or any over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID) to be taken to relieve the pain. 

In extreme cases, dehydration can occur, and hospitalization may be required. In situations like this, fluids are given through an IV to help rehydrate and rebalance electrolytes, and the patient is closely monitored for possible complications.

Natural Relief

aloe vera

Prevention is better than cure, however, this may not always be an option.

Fortunately, there are several natural remedies that help relieve the painful, itchy discomfort of too much sun.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is an age-old home remedy for treating burns. It has amazing anti-inflammatory properties to soothe the skin and relieve discomfort. 

You can extract the gel from a section of the aloe vera plant itself, and apply it directly to the skin. Or instead, use aloe vera gels or lotions.

Natural aloe vera gel or lotions without preservatives can provide immediate relief. And aloe vera can be used as often throughout the day as needed.

Witch Hazel

This fantastic all-natural astringent provides anti-inflammatory relief for your burn symptoms. It can be applied all over the body using a cotton ball for smaller areas and a fresh, moist cotton towel for larger areas.

Witch hazel works to immediately alleviate some of the discomfort and burning.

Oatmeal

There are natural soothing properties in oatmeal that help the skin retain moisture and cut down on inflammation. 

You can add uncooked oatmeal to your bath water for a soothing soak.

As an alternative, cook 1 cup of oatmeal until it has a runny consistency. Apply it gently to the skin to soothe discomfort. Leave the mixture on the skin for 30 minutes to one hour before rinsing. 

Black Tea

Black tea contains beneficial antioxidants that soothe and treat irritated and burned skin. 

The tea also contains tannins which protect the skin from UV radiation, damage, and irritation. 

Antioxidants in the tea help regenerate skin cells and restore the skin’s pH balance.

Most black tea bags are also safe to use on the eyelids or directly on the affected skin.

Baking soda

Baking soda is naturally alkaline and has antiseptic properties that relieve itching and soothe irritation. 

Add one cup of baking soda to your bathwater and soak for 15 minutes for immediate relief. Or try mixing baking soda with water until it forms a paste, apply it directly to the affected skin for comfort.

Summary

It’s no wonder there are so many warnings against exposure to our fiery planet.

The intensity of ultraviolet radiation causes some pretty nasty immediate effects. But the long-term impacts can be severe resulting in permanent skin damage, premature aging, and even the development of skin cancers. 

Always take the necessary precautions when you plan to spend time outdoors and try to stay out of direct sunlight especially between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm when ultraviolet rays are at their peak.

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