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Ouch! I got Sunburnt! By Dr Jennifer Crawley

Summer’s here, and that means more sunlight, higher ultraviolet (UV) light rays and potentially a sunburn! With the easing of restrictions and people spending more time outdoors, it’s easy to forget to apply and reapply sunscreen, especially when it is windy, when near water or in the hills. Be extra careful when around water and sand. Without regular use of sunscreen, this brings red, hot and sore to the touch skin, otherwise known as sunburn.

A sunburn is caused by the high levels of ultraviolet light from the sun or artificial sources (tanning beds). It is possible to get sunburn even on a cloudy day, because UV light can go through clouds.

After a couple of hours of basking in the sun or when out in summer on a cloudy day, the symptoms of sunburn begin. Although’ it may take 24 hours for the full damaging effects to be seen on the skin, the effects will have started even after ten minutes of exposure in fair-skinned people and become symptomatic within five hours.

Sunburn not only accelerates ageing in the skin but is the leading cause of melanoma, squamous and basal cell carcinoma (skin cancers), which can take years to show. It also accelerates eye cataract formation.

Sunburn is dreadful because it makes the skin red and sore and can lead to later skin issues, but all hope is not lost as it is avoidable.

What is sunburn?

Sunburn occurs to the skin’s outermost layers due to ultraviolet light (UV) radiation damage. After a sunburn with redness and soreness, you may notice skin blisters or your skin peeling. It is strongly advised not to peel the skin and instead let it fall off naturally. Sunburn can happen to any exposed area of your body, including earlobes, lips and scalp. Sunburn can also occur on covered areas if the clothing has a loose weave that allows UV light.

Signs of sunburn include changes in skin tone, such as pinkness or redness, skin that feels sore, pain and tender, small fluid-filled blisters and swelling.

The body has its defence system against sun radiation known as melanin. Melanin is responsible for skin shades, hair and eye colour. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanin begins to darken the skin. It is easy to sunburn for people with fairer skin tones due to less melanin than those with darker skin tones who tan in the sun. However, both sunburning and tanning are indications of cell damage.

What types of sunburn are there?

Mild sunburn

Also known as superficial skin burn, a mild sunburn is the least harmful burn. The area may be slightly painful, with redness lasting between 3-5 days. You may experience slight peeling as your skin regenerates itself from the burn.

Moderate sunburn

The moderate type of burn affects the top two layers of the skin. The skin will be tender to the touch or hurt more in higher temperatures. Blisters usually filled with fluid may appear on the burn. With moderate sunburn, the skin will heal in 7 to 21 days. A scar might develop with this type of burn.

Severe sunburn

Severe sunburn is the most damaging type of sunburn, which must be avoided at all costs. Affecting all layers of the skin and underlying muscle and tissue, severe sunburn turns the skin to a different colour. Typically white, grey, or black. This type of burn causes severe long-term damages to the skin and will involve going to the hospital. It is associated with severe skin swelling, light sensitivity, dehydration and fever.

What are some sunburn treatments?

  • To help relieve the pain, take a cool shower or bath, or apply cool compresses or soaks.
  • Use a lotion or spray of moisturisers with aloe vera or numbing medicine in them specifically to soothe sunburnt skin.
  • Consider taking ibuprofen to reduce any swelling, redness and discomfort.
  • Increase your intake of water to prevent dehydration.
  • Stay out of the sun until the redness and pain go away.
  • If skin blisters appear, do not touch them but instead allow them to heal.
  • Take extra precautions to protect the sunburned areas with the use of sunscreen and sun-protective clothing.
  • Protect your skin and prevent sunburn

Can sunburn be prevented?

Always protect your skin from the sun by wearing sunscreen, sunglasses, sun-protective clothing and hats when outdoors. It’s pivotal to reapply sunscreen after every 2 hours, especially after swimming or visiting the beach. Avoid going outside between 2 pm -5 pm as the sun is at its highest in the sky. Fairer people should stay out of the sun between 10 am and 6 pm in summer.

Sunscreen should be at least SPF 30 or greater and must protect against the two types of UV light, UVA and UVB, giving broad-spectrum protection.

Wear lip balm with an SPF of 30 or greater.

Remember, symptoms of sunburn are temporary; however, the damage to the skin is permanent. Long-term effects include premature ageing, wrinkles, sunspots, and skin cancer. It takes one sunburn to leave a negative impact.

It’s crucial to treat burns properly and as soon as possible so you can reduce symptoms and speed up your skin’s recovery.

Book an appointment with Clinica London´s Dermatology Consultants, Dr Jennifer Crawley, to treat any skin concerns including sunburn and suspected skin cancer.

Dr Jennifer Crawley

Consultant Dermatologist
Children & Adults


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