How to Prevent and Treat Sunburn
It used to be that sunburns were as much a part of summer as picnics and pool parties. Today, we know that too much sun — i.e. when your skin gets red and feels hot to the touch — can, over time, result in dry, wrinkled skin, liver spots, and even skin cancer.
Experts say 15-20 minutes of sunlight a day is an ideal amount for a light-skinned person to produce health-promoting vitamin D. Darker skinned people need a bit longer.
At the very least, sunburn is painful and can lead to headache, fever and fatigue. Preventing sunburn is important to protect your skin and your future health — and to really enjoy your summer.
How Much Sun is Too Much?
Getting some sun, experts now conclude, is indeed essential to health. Most importantly, safe sun exposure allows your body to produce vitamin D, which is often referred to as the “sunshine drug.”
“Enzymes in our skin make vitamin D when skin is exposed to sunlight,” says Dr. Julia Knight, a researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
Maintaining healthy vitamin D levels is known to protect against cancer, strengthen your bones, and, according to the Vitamin D Council, plays a positive role in the following conditions:
- Heart disease, stroke and hypertension
- Autoimmune diseases
- Chronic pain, muscle weakness and muscle wasting
- Osteoarthritis and osteoporosis
- Birth defects
- Periodontal disease
Sun exposure is an easy, not to mention inexpensive way to get plenty of vitamin D, so experts now recommend spending a bit of time in the sun to maintain your levels.
“You don’t need much sun for your body to reach its maximum level of vitamin D,” Knight says. “In the summer, a lighter-skinned person would reach their maximum level in about 15 minutes. People with darker skin would need a bit more time.”
So while a short stay in the sun is healthy, too much longer can be harmful. You know you’ve been in the sun too long if your skin looks pink or red, feels hot to the touch, or is painful. Once you feel this, however, it’s likely too late.
Aloe vera is an incredibly soothing salve for burns of all kinds (including sunburn). Just break off a leaf and apply the gel inside to the burn.
How to Prevent Sunburn
Most sunburn symptoms don’t show until a few hours after exposure, but the full extent of the burn may not appear for a day or more. So it makes sense to be careful when you’re in the sun to avoid getting burned in the first place.
- Don’t stay out long between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. This is when the sun’s rays are the strongest. If you’re outdoors during this time, keep in mind that you’ll burn faster than at other times of the day.
- Wear protective clothing. If you’ve been out in the sun for a while and want to cover up, use clothing such as cover-ups, long loose-fitting pants and tops, and wide-brimmed hats. Opt for lightweight fabrics that are cool, but will still give you sun protection. And don’t forget your sunglasses (your eyes can get sunburned too).
- Try natural sunblock. Sunblock will protect your skin from the sun’s rays, but be aware that many contain questionable chemicals that are not usually regulated. Opt for natural varieties from your health food store, and be sure to reapply the sunblock if you have been in the water or have been sweating.
- Get some shade. A simple way to avoid sunburn is to go in a shaded area to get out of the sun. If a shaded area (such as under a tree) is not available, use an umbrella.
How to Soothe Sunburn
If your preventative measures have failed and you’ve gotten sunburned, here are some simple tips to soothe the pain and swelling:
- Cool the area. Dampen a washcloth with cool water and apply it to the area, or take a cool or shower. Adding some baking soda to your bathwater can help to soothe your skin.
- Keep your skin moisturized. A gentle, non-irritating moisturizer can help relieve the dryness and tightness that accompanies sunburn.
- Soothe your skin. Aloe vera gel is an excellent soothing salve, particularly if you have access to a living plant. Simply break off a leaf and apply the gel inside to the burn. Witch hazel also works well to relieve sunburn pain.
- Drink plenty of water. Sunburn can be dehydrating, causing fluid loss through your skin. Drinking water is essential to healing sunburn.
- Leave blisters alone, if they form. The fluid inside acts as a protective agent for your skin. Breaking the blisters will slow healing and increase the risk of infection.
- Avoid topical “-caine” products. Over-the-counter creams that end in “caine” (such as benzocaine) are sometimes advertised to relieve sunburn. However, according to the Mayo Clinic they can actually irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction.
Finally, if you are sunburned treat it as any other illness. Your body will need time to recover, so put on some comfortable, loose-fitting clothing, rest, and eat and drink healthy foods to give your body all the support it needs to heal.