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7 Important Things to Know About Sunburns

July 29, 2022

It’s fun to spend time in the sun, but it’s important to take care of ourselves while doing it. The sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays can cause sunburns that can lead to unfortunate skin damage and possibly cancer if it happens too frequently.

Luckily, Dhavel Bhavsar, MD, medical director of the Burnett Burn Center at The University of Kansas Health System, has provided important information on sunburns, including how to treat them and protect ourselves from future burns.

When you get a sunburn, cool down the skin

It takes about a week for a sunburn to fully heal. The first 2 days of that healing process can be painful. To relieve that pain, the best thing to do is cool down the skin by applying a moisturizer containing aloe vera or soy. You can also use over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin to help reduce inflammation of the skin.

When peeling of the skin begins, it is important to allow the skin to peel on its own; do not peel the skin yourself. Attempting to peel your own skin can cause further damage and disrupt the healing process.

Lastly, drink plenty of water and hydrating fluids. Staying hydrated helps speed up the skin’s healing process.

Seeing blisters? See a doctor

If you see blisters on your skin due to the sunburn, it is best to reach out to your doctor. Blisters mean you have a second-degree burn. Make sure not to pop or pick at the blisters as this can cause bleeding and further skin damage.

Darker-skinned people get sunburns, too

While it is often less frequent and severe, darker-skinned people can be sunburned, too. The lighter the skin, the easier it is to be sunburned. This is because darker-skinned people contain more melanin in their skin, which protects them from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Darker-skinned people can also develop skin cancer from too much sun exposure. Although that is also less frequent, skin cancer in people of color is usually detected later and with a worse prognosis, so protection from the sun is just as important for those with darker skin.

Sunburn risks increase within certain times and locations

The sun’s ultraviolet rays are strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but people should still be cautious outside of peak times.

“Even though the maximum amount of sun rays or ultraviolet rays are between those times, you will still have a significant exposure and significant risk from sunburn during other times,” says Dr. Bhavsar.

The places where you’re at most risk for sunburn are subtropical and high-temperature areas. There is also greater risk on days where there is more depletion of the ozone layer, which protects us from the sun’s UV rays.

Some medications and conditions can increase risk of sunburns

Medications that can increase risk of sunburns include:

  • Fluoroquinolones
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Photosensitizing medication
  • Retinoids
  • St. John’s wort
  • Sulfonamides
  • Tetracyclines (especially doxycycline)
  • Thiazide diuretics

Conditions that can increase risk include:

Mineral-based sunscreens work best

Zinc oxide or mineral-based sunscreens work best because they sit on the top of the skin and reflect the sun, while chemical-based sunscreens are absorbed into the skin. Mineral-based sunscreens cause less irritation, fewer allergies, and are better for acne-prone skin and people who deal with hyperpigmentation and melasma.

It is also recommended to use sunscreen lotions instead of spray (aerosol) sunscreens, if possible.

“Spray-on sunscreens do not create even layers,” Dr. Bhavsar says. “And most of the spray-on sunscreens are not mineral-based. That doesn't mean that they do not provide any protection, but if I had to, I would choose the mineral-based lotions as my first choice and the spray-on sunscreens as my backup.”

Frequent sunburns can increase risk of skin cancer

The sun’s ultraviolet rays expose skin to radiation, which leads to inflammation of the skin. That leads to swelling of cells which can, over time, develop into skin cancer cells.

“Not each and every cell that's injured in your sunburn will lead to skin cancer,” says Dr. Bhavsar, “but each sunburn injury increases your chance of having future skin cancer.”

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