Sunburn occurs when the skin is exposed to too much sun without the protection of clothing or sunscreen. Sunburn is the result of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun damaging the skin because it cannot produce its defensive pigment, melanin, fast enough to protect itself from the damaging rays. Though it is more frequently seen in persons who have less pigment in their skin, even patients with darker skin tones can get sunburned.
Sunburn increases the risk of long-term skin conditions such as premature wrinkles, dark spots, pre-cancers called actinic keratoses, and more serious problems like skin cancer. Before extended sun exposure (anything over 15 minutes) it is important to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 that blocks both UVA and UVB rays from the sun. UV rays penetrate the earth’s atmosphere, including clouds, which is why it’s important to wear sunscreen even on cloudy days.
Mild to moderate sunburn:
• Skin redness and inflammation
• Burning or irritation over the affected area
• Skin that is warm and/or sensitive to the touch
Severe sunburn or sun poisoning includes:
• Severe skin pain
• Blistering of the affected area
• Queasiness and/or vomiting
If you start to experience the symptoms of sun poisoning, it is important to seek immediate medical attention.
Sunburned skin is at risk of infection if it begins to blister making the blisters more vulnerable to bacterial infection. Swelling, redness, and oozing indicate the beginning of an infection. Sunburns can also activate herpes “cold sore” virus seen on the lips or face which requires immediate evaluation by your doctor.
UVA and UVB rays expedite the aging process and make you appear older than you are. Signs of premature aging caused by the sun, or photoaging, include wrinkles, rough-looking skin, visible veins, age spots, melasma, brownish age spots, irregular pigmentation, and a reduction in the skin’s elasticity.
Skin Cancer & Pre-Skin Cancer
Exposure to UV rays is the most common cause of skin cancer. When sun exposure is extreme enough to impair the DNA of skin cells, it can lead to skin cancer. A condition called actinic keratosis is characterized by scaly patches of skin and can be a warning sign that points to potential cancerous cells. It is important to examine your skin every month and visit a board-certified dermatologist for an annual screening to prevent skin cancer. Check out our Skin Cancer Center for tips on recognizing the signs and types of skin cancer.
Sunburn Prevention: the first step to nonmedical care takes place before even entering the sun. Wear clothing that blocks UV rays. Many people believe that only areas directly exposed to sunlight are at risk for sunburn, but some types of clothing provide little to no protection from the sun. Tightly woven, heavier fabrics of a darker color offer much more protection than lightweight, lighter-colored clothing. Wearing UV-blocking sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats can also prevent sunburn.
The next step in preventing sunburn is the generous application and reapplication, of sunscreen before and during sun exposure. Effective use of sunscreen includes applying a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) 30 or higher that protects from both UVA and UVB rays. Those desired brands will be advertised as broad-spectrum sunscreens and should advertise a seal of recognition from the American Academy of Dermatology. Sweating and activities like swimming can reduce the effectiveness of sunscreen, so it should be applied at least 30 minutes prior to swimming and before sweating has occurred, and then reapplied generously and often.
Post-Sunburn Care: it is easier to prevent sunburn than to treat it. However, if you do get mild sunburn, you can treat the symptoms at home by taking over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen and applying cold compresses to the area to help reduce the pain. Aloe-based moisturizing lotions can help reduce the discomfort associated with sunburns as well. Avoid over-the-counter topical anesthetics such as benzocaine as they can cause life-threatening reactions if spread over too large an area of the body. Most importantly, avoid additional sun exposure after sunburn.
If you are experiencing the symptoms of severe sunburn, seek medical attention. You can expect the following treatment from your physician or dermatologist:
• Prescription creams used to heal the skin and avoid infections of second-and third-degree burns
• Prescription steroids are taken orally that act like cortisone to decrease the swelling and discomfort
• Prescription pain-relieving medication
The Laser Institute of Georgia offers many options for reversing or improving the appearance of wrinkles and sun damage:
Fraxel® Laser Treatment reduces the appearance of wrinkles and hyperpigmented skin by focusing on small sections of damaged tissue and creating imperceptible columns in the skin. The skin’s natural defenses then take over, expediting the creation of new skin cells and collagen in the specific area.
DOT Laser Therapy with SmartXide Laser is typically used for the person with deeper wrinkles caused by more intense sun damage and aging. DOT Therapy is safer than traditional laser techniques and produces excellent results by inducing perforations in a pattern that allows the skin to repair and heal itself quickly.
Laser Skin Resurfacing using CO2 Ultrapulse lasers removes the damaged outer layers of the skin, leaving the deeper layers undisturbed. This method works best on fine lines and wrinkles as it does not penetrate deeply enough to erase deeper wrinkles. Procedures like cosmetic injections can better improve the look of deep wrinkles.
Certain skin care products, chemical peels, and microdermabrasion can also minimize sun damage and help reduce wrinkles. Growth factors and DNA repair creams work hand in hand to restore the damage caused by the sun. One of the most popular peels called Vitalize Peel® from Skin Medica® helps reverse photoaging. Topical retinols are the cornerstone of all programs for restoring the skin to a more youthful appearance. Their benefits have been proven time and time again to improve skin texture, and pigmentation and decrease fine wrinkling.
Can people with darker skin tones get sunburned?
Yes! Your skin type and color determine how easily your skin burns; however, anyone, regardless of skin color or type can reap the effects of spending too much time in the sun. These effects include the discomfort of a mild sunburn to the extreme pain of severe sunburn, as well as wrinkles and even skin cancer. It is important that people of all races and ethnicities protect their skin by wearing long clothing, wide-brimmed hats, and sunscreen.
Who is at risk for sunburn?
Everyone is at risk for sunburn. However, extended sun exposure is especially dangerous for fair-skinned individuals, children and infants, those outdoors for long periods of time, people who have had recent sun exposure, and those with prior skin injuries. The sun’s rays are strongest between the hours of 10:00 A.M. and 4:00 P.M., and those expected to be outdoors during those times should protect themselves especially well and seek shade. Some medications can cause hypersensitivity to the sun and make you more vulnerable to sunburn.
Can you get sunburned from a tanning bed?
Yes. Tanning beds work by emitting UVA and UVB rays, and therefore can cause sunburn should overexposure take place. The use of tanning beds also accelerates the photoaging process causing premature wrinkles and even skin cancer.
How dangerous is skin cancer?
Malignant melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer because the longer it is left undiscovered or untreated the more likely it is to spread to other cells and tissues. If left undiscovered or untreated, melanoma can spread to a point of being untreatable and deadly. However, if detected early enough, complete remission is possible. This deadly, frightening skin problem can be completely prevented if discovered while it is still superficial in the skin.
Squamous cell carcinomas spread slower than malignant melanoma and can be treated as long as they are detected in an early stage.
Basal cell carcinomas often do not spread by way of the bloodstream and can generally be treated successfully the majority of the time by Mohs surgery or even simple excision or destruction by the use of an electric needle or laser.
Preventing dangerous and potentially deadly skin cancers depends on early detection and treatment.