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What Causes a Sunburn? | Hands for Life

What Causes a Sunburn?

What is a sunburn?

Sunburns occur when bare skin is exposed to UV rays, most commonly from direct sunlight or spending too long on a tanning bed. These rays cause the skin to respond by making melanin, a natural protective substance that gives us suntans and is responsible for the variety of skin tones across the globe. When the melanin defense system becomes overwhelmed, a burn occurs.

You may have noticed that those with darker skin tones do not burn quite as easily as those with lighter tones. This is due to the quantity of melanin in the skin, and is determined genetically. Those with darker skin are naturally able to produce more melanin, while those with fairer skin have less melanin to work with and burn easier as a consequence.

How do we protect ourselves?

Sunburns can occur on sunny days, overcast days, snowy days, and even while swimming. Studies have shown that up to 80% of UV rays will pass through clouds and that snow, ice, water, and other reflective services can actually magnify the effect of the UV. This means that only going outside when it’s cold or cloudy won’t protect us.

Wearing protective clothing that covers the skin is one of the surest ways to prevent sunburn. Be it a hat, long sleeved shirt, sunglasses, or long pants, covering the body protects us from exposure. This may not always be a practical solution, however, especially when temperatures peak and a nice dip in the swimming pool is needed. In these situations, the best preventative is a good sunscreen.

Sunscreen comes in a variety of forms, ranging from lotions to sprays. When choosing a sunscreen, it is best to pick one with an SPF of 30 or higher. An SPF of 30 will block up to 97% of the harmful UV rays. If you have extremely fair skin or know that you sunburn easily, even higher SPF sunscreens are available. When choosing a sunscreen, make sure you choose a product that provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays. These sunscreens are usually labeled as “broad spectrum”. The American Academy of Dermatology (2017) also recommends choosing a waterproof sunscreen.

how-to-select-sunscreen-infographic

How to treat a sunburn?

No one is perfect. Despite our best intentions, we occasionally forget to put on sunscreen or spend a little too long without our trusty hat. When this happens, we may find ourselves wishing for an effective sunburn treatment that will make the pain and peeling skin go away.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends the following treatment, should sunburn occur:

  • Reduce or eliminate UV exposure as quickly as possible.
  • Cool baths to reduce the heat.
  • Moisturizer to help ease the discomfort caused by dryness. As soon as you get out of the bathtub, gently pat yourself dry, but leave a little water on your skin. Then apply a moisturizer to trap the water in your skin.
  • Hydrocortisone cream that you can buy without a prescription to help ease discomfort.
  • Aspirin or ibuprofen. This can help reduce the swelling, redness and discomfort.
  • Drinking extra water. A sunburn draws fluid to the skin surface and away from the rest of the body. Drinking extra water prevents dehydration.

Should blistering occur, do not pop the blisters. Instead, allow the burn to heal with the blisters intact. If blistered burns cover a large area of your body, or you begin to get a fever and chills, seek medical attention.

 

With summer in full swing, it is important to remember these sunburn facts so that your body can remain burn free. We recommend visiting the American Academy of Dermatology’s website for additional information and tips on preventing sunburn, skin cancer, and other skin conditions. They are a fantastic resource, especially heading into the warmer months.

Sources:

Sunscreen FAQs The American Academy of Dermatology https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs

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