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 of a sunburn.

The Facts

  • 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:

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.

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.