With summer just around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about how to prevent getting burned this summer (or… should it happen despite all efforts: how to best treat a sunburn).
Sunburnt skin is not only painful and embarrassing (who wants to walk around looking like a tomato, advertising that they don’t know how to protect themselves?!), but most importantly, it increases the risk of more serious skin conditions like skin cancer down the line. Furthermore, sunburns greatly accelerate the skin’s ageing process, which is of course something else to bear in mind.
And it may not just be a sunburn that is a sign of acute skin damage, but your skin could be getting damaged even without visible redness, as in fair skin types even tanning can be a sign of skin damage. You see, tanning (ie overproduction of melanin pigment) in fair skin types is your skin’s way of trying to protect itself from the sun’s irradiation – a cry for help so to say.
Also, your skin unfortunately does not forget – it clocks up all those hours of excess sun (even back to your childhood…) and at some point may decide that it’s had enough. You may feel invincible now, but believe me, we have seen enough patients with skin cancer and/or premature skin ageing here at Eudelo to be able to tell you that you will regret those sunburns later. So, before moving on to talk about how to treat sunburns, it’s vital to understand that this should be a last resort measure, as you should not get burned in the first place!
All of us can take easy preventative action to protect ourselves from the harmful effects of excess sun exposure and sunburn. Firstly, make sure to get your skin used to the sun slowly, rather than arriving at your holiday location and going all in at day one. Being aware of our own individual skin type and the associated risks is also essential for maximising protection from the sun. Secondly, avoid direct sunlight between 11am-3pm, as the sun is most powerful around this time. In addition, always make sure to wear sunscreen (broad-spectrum SPF 50) and apply this 15 minutes before going outside, so it can take effect properly (and don’t forget to reapply every couple of hours). However, even better than sun cream is textile sun protection, ie t-shirt, long sleeves, hat etc. (ideally fabrics with inbuild SPF). Sunglasses (the larger, the better!) will help to protect the sensitive area around your eyes.
Before moving on to treatment of sunburn, we’d like to say a quick word about vitamin D. Optimal vitamin D levels are extremely important for general health and wellbeing, which is why we recommend anybody using daily SPF all year around to take a vitamin D3 supplement. To check your vitamin D level or for supplement dosage recommendations (an optimal level may be different from being within the ‘normal’ range), do not hesitate to contact us.
But now back to sunburn. Sunburn is caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) B radiation from the sun (remember: (UV)A for ageing, (UV)B for burning). Its maximum only appears 24 hours after exposure, which can really catch people out. Certain medications such as tetracycline antibiotics or oral isotretinoin for acne can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. It is a commonly misunderstood that sunburn only affects individuals with fair skin, when in fact anyone who spends enough time in the sun can suffer from the negative effects of UV radiation.
Sunburn is essentially an acute inflammation in the skin, causing red, hot, itchy or painful skin (affecting exposed skin areas only, which can lead to sharply demarcated patches of redness). In more severe cases, your skin can become swollen and blister, with subsequent shedding/peeling, or you may even suffer with fever and chills. So, what should you do if this happens?
In the case of a mild sunburn (ie mild redness, no blisters), cooling the skin gently, avoiding further sun exposure, avoiding tight or rubbing clothing, and drinking plenty of fluids will do the trick. Sunburns will generally take a few days to clear. To cool the skin, you could take (short) cool baths or showers and apply cold compresses, for example thermal water compresses (not cold packs from the freezer!). To prepare a thermal water compress, take a clean kitchen towel or other cotton fabric and soak it in thermal water spray (thermal water by La Roche Posay or Avene for example are excellent choices), which you kept in the fridge. So, make sure to stock up on thermal water for your next holiday, as it’s also great to refresh with when it’s hot. If you don’t have thermal water, you could use bottled still mineral water from the fridge or refrigerated (boiled and cooled down) tap water.
Quark compresses (a well-known German home remedy) can also help easing the heat of a mild sunburn and is said to have anti-inflammatory benefits. For this, you apply a thick (about 3-5 cm thick) layer of refrigerated Quark onto a clean kitchen towel or other cotton fabric, and then fold it over, so that the quark is inside a kitchen towel ‘pocket’. This Quark pack can now be applied to the affected skin area. Once it’s warmed up, replace it.
Calming lotions such as an aloe vera gel can also help soothe the skin, but avoid all occlusive skincare, such as heavy, greasy creams, ointments and balms, which would trap the heat.
In moderate cases of sunburn, a topical non-prescription steroid cream such as 1% Hydrocortisone cream (not ointment!) for about three days will help settle the inflammation quicker. This can be used twice per day on the face, but could be increased to three times a day for sunburn on the body (as always, check with your doctor first). The sooner you start, the better.
Taking 2x500mg Aspirin (after checking with your doctor) can also contribute to anti-inflammatory effects, if taken early enough. An oral antihistamine may help relieve itchiness as the skin begins to peel and heal.
And remember, it is really important to not pick at skin flakes but let them come off on their own accord (and do not use exfoliants to take the flakes off), as your skin is still very sensitive at this stage.
For more severe cases of sunburn, make sure to consult a medical professional. If you have concern relating to sunburn or any other dermatology topic, our highly qualified Eudelo Dermatologists are available to offer expert advice, if needed via video consultation. Contact us today and get the right advice for your skin health.