Student Health Services
Holloway Hall

Sunburn Prevention/Treatment

The Damage to Your Skin From A Single Sunburn Lasts the Rest of Your Life! We know that a tan today means permanent sun damage tomorrow. The risk goes far beyond the discomfort a sunburn... 

  • Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. Getting too much sun can lead to skin cancer.
  • Today one in five adults develops skin cancer. It accounts for about one-third of all reported malignancies in the U.S.
  • Malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is beginning to occur at a much higher rate in women under 40.
  • About 90% of the other two skin cancers (basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas) are caused by overexposure to the sun.

Sun damage is cumulative. It continues to add up over a lifetime. The early signs of sun damage (photo-damage) include sunburn, tanning, increased freckling. This is followed by wrinkling, premature aging and sagging of the skin, and more serious medical problems -- skin cancer. As much as 80% of lifetime photodamage occurs before the age of 20!

Biologically, the skin responds to photodamage by increasing its thickness and the number of pigment cells (melanocytes), which produce the "tan" look. An important part of our skin's immune system (the Langerhans cell) is reduced by photodamage, therefore lowering the normal immune protection of our skin. Finally, wrinkling occurs due to photodamage to the "elastic substances" in our skin (collagen and estrogen).

Ultraviolet Light

The sun gives off 3 types of harmful ultraviolet rays: 

UVA (Ultraviolet A): These longer wavelengths penetrate deeply into the skin, damaging the skin's "elastic substances." They result in premature aging and contribute to skin cancer formation. 

UVB (Ultraviolet B): These are short wavelengths, and are believed to be the primary rays causing sunburns, and ultimately skin cancer. 

UVC (Ultraviolet C): These very short rays are deadly to plants/animals. The Ozone Layer protects us by absorbing UVC rays. But as the ozone thins, we will be exposed to more UVC rays, which will possibly contribute to skin cancers and eye damage.

Avoiding Sunburns

Minimize exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. standard time. This is when ultraviolet light is most intense. Deliberate sunbathing is to be avoided. Use a sunscreen with a SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of at least 15 to block the sun. The sunscreen should also be broad-spectrum; i.e. protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure, remembering to include lips and earlobes. Reapply every two hours since water and perspiration will decrease its effectiveness. 

When outdoors for any length of time, wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and sun protective clothing. Be aware -- light reflects off of sand, water, and snow. Even on a cloudy day, you are still exposed to 80% of the sun's rays. In winter remember to use SPF 15 or higher while skiing, skating, etc.

Moisturizers do not protect you from sun damage, do not repair sun damage, and do not prevent wrinkles caused by sun damage. However, sunscreen in moisturizers, makeups and cosmetics is now becoming popular; such products are clearly marked.

Sunscreens

Sun protection factors, or SPF's, have been developed to help match your level of sun sensitivity to a specific level of sunscreen protection. The SPF number helps you determine how long you can stay in the sun without burning. The higher the SPF number, the more protection from UVB exposure a particular sunscreen provides. For example, a SPF of 15 gives you 15 times your normal protection against photodamage. We recommend sunscreens with a SPF of 15 or more. Consider the higher numbered SPF's in the early spring season or when taking a southern vacation in the Winter.

Sunscreen Sensitivity: If you have sensitive skin or are concerned you might be allergic to a sunscreen, then test the sunscreen first. Rub a small amount on your inner, upper arm daily for 3-5 days. If your skin doesn't get a rash or turn red, then you are probably not allergic to the sunscreen.

Acne and Sunscreens

If you have acne, avoid oily sun protection products to the affected areas, such as face, shoulders and chest. Look for products labeled "oil free" or "non-comedogenic." Generally sunscreen gels or solutions are good choices for acne prone skin. Certain prescription medications such as tetracycline, doxycycline, Retin-A and Accutane, may cause you to sunburn more easily.

Tanning Booths

Tanning booths are not recommended, especially for people with skin types I and II (always burn, and never or sometimes tan.) There is concern because the high-intensity light exposure promotes alterations of the immune system, premature aging of the skin, and development of skin cancer. Although tanning occurs in the skin when it's exposed to these lights, there is no associated thickening of the stratum corneum. The stratum corneum is the outer protective layer of skin, and on exposure to the sun it thickens rapidly to help prevent sunburn.

Self-Tanners

If you still like the look of a tan, then try using a self-tanning product. Self-tanners today produce a very natural looking "fake tan." They contain a chemical called dihydroxyacetone, which will cause the outer layer of the skin to turn brown. This "fake tan" does not protect the skin from ultraviolet rays, so sunscreens must still be used. To maintain the "tan", the self-tanner is reapplied every 2-7 days.

Treatment of Sunburn

If you get burned, your skin will be red and painful. Be very careful what you apply to burned skin, as it is more permeable and chemicals from applied materials will penetrate through the skin more easily. Also, fluid from your body will evaporate more easily. Therefore: 

  • Drink more fluids. 
  • Mild soaps in shower and/or cool compresses. 
  • Moisturize skin, e.g.. Aquaphor. 
  • Avoid "Caine" products, e.g. Benzocaine. 
  • For comfort, try plain Calamine lotion or Sarna lotion. 
  • Take aspirin or Ibuprofen, to help reduce inflammation. 

Acute severe sunburn associated with nausea, vomiting, chills, malaise, weakness and blistering -- make an appointment with Student Health Services.