Girl with sunscreen on face

Protect Your Skin this Summer: Sunburn Prevention and Treatment

Aug 08, 2023 Dermatology , Urgent Care Share:

Have you ever had your summer fun interrupted by a nasty sunburn?

No one ever plans to get a sunburn, but protecting your skin can take work -- especially in Alabama during the dog days of summer. But protecting your skin is worth it since a sunburn isn't just uncomfortable. Sunburns can cause lasting damage to your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer.

Check out our guide to prioritizing skin protection as you spend time out in the sun this summer.

Sunburn Basics

Sunburn is an injury to your skin that occurs when your skin is exposed to excessive UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources such as tanning beds. If you’ve ever had a sunburn, you know how uncomfortable it can be. Even a minor sunburn can be disruptive and make sleeping, working, and carrying out your daily activities difficult.

When you spend time in the sun without adequate protection, your skin absorbs UVB rays. These rays damage the DNA in skin cells, triggering a series of reactions that result in inflammation and redness. The body's immune response tries to repair the damage, leading to increased blood flow to the affected area, which causes the skin to appear red and feel warm to the touch.

When you get a sunburn, you may experience a number of other symptoms, including:

  • Pain and discomfort
  • Swelling
  • Peeling
  • Itching

Severe sunburns can lead to more serious symptoms, such as blistering, fever, headache, and fatigue. In extreme cases, sunburn can cause heat exhaustion or heatstroke, which require immediate medical attention.

Long-term Risks of Sunburn

While sunburn is acutely uncomfortable when it happens, it can also lead to a number of long-term consequences. Repeated sunburns put you at a greater risk of a number of skin cancers, premature aging, and skin damage.

Sunburns, especially those acquired during childhood and adolescence, significantly increase your risk of developing skin cancer later in life. The most dangerous form of skin cancer is melanoma, which can be deadly if not detected and treated early. Non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are also linked to sunburns. All adults should have annual skin checks with their dermatologist to screen for the presence of skin cancer.

Chronic sun exposure can also lead to premature aging of the skin. The UV rays break down the collagen and elastin fibers in the skin, which are responsible for keeping it firm and smooth. Sunburns can lead to wrinkles, fine lines, and a loss of elasticity in your skin. Sun damage can also cause sunspots or age spots, which are localized areas of increased pigmentation on the skin.

How to Prevent Sunburn

We aren’t going to tell you to stay inside all day. You can still enjoy the sun safely and go all summer long without sunburn.

Protect your skin and prevent sunburn by following these tips:

  • Apply sunscreen with a high SPF as directed. Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. The best sunscreen is one that you’ll use correctly and consistently, so find one that’s easy to apply, has a scent that you enjoy, and doesn’t irritate your skin.
  • Stay in the shade during the peak sun hours. This is when the sun’s UV radiation is the strongest and the most intense. In the summer, these peak sun hours are from about 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Use a tent or umbrella while at the beach or pool. A wide-brimmed hat can provide shade that moves with you, protecting your face, neck, scalp, and ears from sunburn.
  • Wear sunglasses. It’s hard to apply sunscreen thoroughly on the delicate areas around your eyes, but this area is particularly vulnerable to damage. Sunglasses provide protection without the risk of getting sunscreen in your eyes.
  • Invest in sun-protective clothing. A white t-shirt provides limited sun protection (about UPF 7). Clothing that’s specifically designed for sun protection, such as rash guards, shirts, and pants, provides as much coverage as your sunscreen without feeling too heavy or too hot.

It’s important to protect your skin all year long, but the UV rays from the sun are most intense during the summer.

Treating Your Sunburn

If you do get a sunburn, you’ll need to take steps to alleviate your pain, reduce inflammation, and support your skin’s natural healing process. As soon as you notice that you have a sunburn, get out of the sun immediately. You can’t reverse your sunburn with more sunscreen, and you want to prevent your sunburn from getting any worse.

If you get a sunburn, make sure you do:

  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water, since sunburn can cause dehydration.
  • Take a cool shower or use cool compresses to reduce inflammation and relieve pain.
  • Apply aloe vera gel or lotion to soothe your sunburn.
  • Wear loose-fitting cotton clothing to minimize discomfort.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen as needed for pain or discomfort.

When you have a sunburn, you should never:

  • Put ice on your sunburn.
  • Use petroleum-based lotions to hydrate your skin, since they can trap heat in and make your burn worse.
  • Go back out in the sun before your sunburn has healed. Your skin is vulnerable and at risk of further damage.
  • Use perfumes, exfoliants, or other products on your skin that can cause more irritation.

Most sunburns will resolve on their own with a little home care. If you have a more severe sunburn that is accompanied by blisters, fever, or chills, or if your sunburn covers a large portion of your body, it’s a good idea to visit an urgent care clinic near you. Your doctor may prescribe topical ointments to prevent infection, non-opioid pain relief, or IV fluids to prevent dehydration.

Common Myths About Sunburns and Skin Protection

Myth: You can only get a sunburn in direct sunlight

Sunburns can occur on cloudy or overcast days as well. Although clouds can block some UV rays, they don't completely shield you from the harmful effects of the sun. UV rays can still penetrate through clouds and cause sunburn. Similarly, some people think they can only get sunburn in hot weather, but you can get sunburn at any time of year.

Myth: Sunburns are harmless

Sunburns are a sign of skin damage caused by UV radiation. Repeated sunburns increase the risk of skin cancer and premature aging of the skin. It's crucial to take sunburns seriously and protect your skin from further damage. Sunburns are painful in the short term and risky in the long term.

Myth: You can't sunburn if you have a base tan

Some people believe that getting a base tan before a vacation or sun exposure can prevent sunburn. However, a base tan offers minimal protection, roughly equivalent to an SPF of 3 or less. It does not provide sufficient protection against harmful UV rays.

Myth: You don't need to reapply sunscreen if you're using a high SPF

Even if you're wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 70, you still need to reapply. This is true any time of year, but it's especially important if you're spending an extended period of time outside, sweating, or getting in and out of the water. Make sure to follow the application instructions on your sunscreen.

Myth: Tanning beds are safer than direct sunlight

Tanning beds are not safer than direct sunlight. In fact, they can be even more harmful to your skin. Tanning beds emit concentrated ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can cause significant damage to the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer. The UV radiation from tanning beds is often more intense than natural sunlight, and the exposure time is typically longer. The only safe tan is a spray tan.

Even when you’re being careful, you can still find yourself with a sunburn. If you’re suffering from severe sunburn, you won’t find any judgment - just help from our urgent care doctors seven days a week. We can help you get relief and get you back to enjoying some summer fun.

And even if you haven’t had a sunburn in a long time, our doctors can help you with your sun damage. At MedHelp, we offer comprehensive dermatology services, including skin cancer screenings and aesthetic dermatology to help reverse the signs of skin damage. Learn more about our services here.

Care for Your Skin this Summer

While you can’t go back and undo the sunburns of your past, you can improve the health and appearance of your skin today. Schedule an appointment with our on-site dermatologist to learn more.