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A “sexy summer glow” is something we’ve grown up thinking is desirable, and it can feel good to soak up some rays, especially after a long winter. However, sunburn is no light matter (if you’ll pardon the pun). A tan, which you may or may not think looks nice, is actually your body’s way of attempting to protect itself from the damaging effects of the sun’s UV rays. Sunburns increase your risk of skin damage that, in turn, can lead to deadly cancers. And that’s not to mention the aging effects of sun damaging your skin, from sunspots and dry skin patches, to premature wrinkles.
It’s unlikely that you don’t know the basic mechanics of sunburn—it’s the sun, literally burning your skin! But did you know that, despite all of the increased awareness and public education in the last couple of decades or so, at least one in three adults and a whopping 70 percent of children admit they’ve gotten sunburned in the past year.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), more than 3.5 million skin cancers, in more than 2 million people, are diagnosed every single year— and many of these skin cancers could have been prevented with protection from the sun’s rays.
When it comes to sunburn, perhaps the most important thing to know is that it’s not just about spending all day at the beach under a blazing hot sun. In fact, it only takes 15 minutes of sun exposure for the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays to damage your skin.
And, not only this can happen on hot, sunny days, but you can still get burned when it’s gloomy or cold: while clouds may stop the heat and some of the light from brightening up your day, they do NOT stop all of the UV rays that cause skin damage. Finally, skin damage can happen when you haven’t been in the sun at all! That’s right, we’re talking about exposing yourself to artificial sources of UV light, including tanning beds and sun lamps.
What’s actually happening below the surface of your skin? And why is sunburn so dangerous?
First things first… UV radiation, or ultraviolet light, is a wavelength of sunlight. And while you can’t see it, because it’s in a range too short for the human eye to see, it’s there, all around us. The sun gives off three different kinds of ultraviolet light, or radiation:
Unless you’re planning to head into outer space sometime soon, you only have to worry about the first two kinds of UV radiation as UVC light doesn’t reach the Earth’s surface. However, UVA and UVB light can not only easily reach you—whether you’re taking a walk in the park on a cloudy day or lying on the beach in the summer—that light can penetrate your skin. And, whether or not you get visible signs of a burn, below the surface, UVA and UVB radiation can actually alter your DNA. Not only does this prematurely age your skin, over time, this DNA damage can lead to potentially lethal skin cancers, like melanoma.
Sunlamps and tanning beds also give off UV light—generally more powerful than the rays emitted by the sun– and therefore can cause sunburn, skin damage, and skin cancer.
So, what happens when UV light reaches your skin?
The dark pigment in your skin that gives you your normal skin color is called melanin. When your skin is exposed to UV rays, your body works to protect itself from this radiation by speeding up the creation of melanin. That’s what causes your skin to get darker, or to tan. In other words, a suntan is your body’s method of preventing sunburn and skin damage. However, this protection is limited, because your body is limited in the amount of melanin it can produce – this is genetically determined. Many people simply can’t produce enough melanin to protect their skin well enough from the sun, so, eventually, UV light causes the skin to burn.
How soon a sunburn begins to develop and the severity of that burn depends on several factors:
Additionally, these are behavioral risk factors that can increase the likelihood you’ll suffer from sunburn:
But did you know that you can’t always immediately see signs of sun damage?
You can often see the results of a sunburn soon after burning your skin and, often, you can feel those painful results, too!
With a first degree burn, where only the top layer of skin is affected:
In more severe cases, you can get what’s considered a second degree burn. If you’ve gotten a severe sunburn, you can develop swelling and even blisters (yes, just like the blisters you get when you accidentally touch a hot pan handle or an open flame). This may mean that deep skin layers and nerve endings have been damaged.
After a few days, your skin can start to feel itchy, and begin peeling. Why? Because your body is working to rid itself of those sun-damaged skin cells.
In a nutshell: Indoor tanning exposes your skin to the same UV radiation you’d get by laying out under the sun. It’s just as dangerous and damaging to your skin.
It is absolutely possible to get a “sunburn” from indoor tanning, and it’s actually a common occurrence. A recent study amongst female college students revealed that:
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, indoor tanning increases your chance of melanoma by 74%. And, the more time a person has spent tanning indoors, the higher the risk.
In addition to melanoma (the deadliest type of skin cancer), indoor tanning can cause basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation also can cause cataracts and cancers of the eye (ocular melanoma). Just like exposure to the sun, indoor tanning also causes premature aging (photoaging), like wrinkles and sunspots, and can change you skin texture.
Repeated instances of sunburn can lead to a variety of complications, including infection, eye damage, premature aging (photoaging), and skin cancer, which can be deadly. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States!
Infection. If you’ve gotten blisters from a second-degree sunburn, these blisters can rupture, leaving you at risk of infection. If you notice any of these signs of infection, you should see a doctor: pain, redness, swelling, and an oozing of the blister.
Eye damage. UV light can damage the retina, lens or cornea or your eyes. Sun damage to the lens can lead to cataracts, which is a clouding of the lens. Sunburned eyes may feel gritty or painful. “Snow blindness” is a sunburn of the cornea.
Photoaging. Premature aging of the skin from repeated sun exposure and sun damage is called photoaging. Photoaging makes you look older than you really are. The results of photoaging include:
Precancerous skin lesions. Appearing as rough, scaly patches in areas that have been damaged by the sun, precancerous skin may be whitish, pink, tan, or brown. Also called also called actinic keratoses (AKs) and solar keratosis, these precancerous lesions are usually found on the sun-exposed areas of the head, face, neck and hands of fair-skinned people. These patches can evolve into skin cancer. If you suspect you have a precancerous skin lesion, it’s very important to see your doctor.
Skin cancer. Repeated exposure to the sun or to UV rays can damage the DNA of your skin cells, and increases your risk of deadly skin cancers like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Sunburns in children and teens can increase the likelihood of developing melanoma later in life. Skin cancer, which primarily develops on the areas of the body most often exposed to the sun (scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms, hands and legs), can appear as a small growth or a sore that easily bleeds. It may bleed, bleed, crusts over, heal and then reopen. With the deadly cancer melanoma, a new, suspicious-looking mole may develop or an existing mole may change in appearance. There’s a type of melanoma called lentigo maligna that starts as a flat, tan spot. This spot, which develops in areas of long-term sun exposure, slowly darkens and enlarges over time.
See your doctor if you notice ANYTHING suspicious about an existing mole (such as a change in texture or appearance). You should also see a doctor if you notice a new mole develop, if you have a sore that won’t heal, or if you notice a new skin growth.
The good new is: sunburn is very easy to prevent! It’s all about avoiding exposure to UV light, whether by literally staying indoors, or protecting your skin when you are outdoors. (Or, of course, steering clear of tanning beds.)
Which brings us to …
Keep in mind:
You can also look for clothing that is manufactured to provide protection against UV rays! Clothing that is certified under international standards should come with information on its ultraviolet protection factor.
And of course, last but certainly not least…
How does sunscreen work? Sunscreen is made with chemicals that that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. Most work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering sunlight. Since all products don’t use the same ingredients, if you have an allergic reaction to one product, you can try another one, or consult a doctor for a recommendation!
Sunscreens are rated with a number that indicated their effectiveness against blocking harmful UV rays. The higher the number, the more effective they are. According to the AAD, a sunscreen with SPF 30 (which is their minimum recommendation) blocks 97 percent of the sun’s rays. While higher number SPFs block slightly more of the sun’s rays, it’s important to know that: NO sunscreen can block 100% of the sun’s rays.
High-number SPFs last the same amount of time as low-number SPFs. That’s why all sunscreens should be applied approximately every two hours when outdoors, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating.
Just as a base rule, the CDC recommends applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen before you go outside, even on slightly cloudy or cool days. Many skincare brands offer daily moisturizer with SPF – it’s great to get into the habit of wearing SPF on a daily basis!
When it comes to application, the AAD recommends you:
Types of Sunscreen
There are many types of sunscreen, from sprays to lotions. It’s really up to a personal preference, which may vary for different parts of your body. The ADD offers some recommendations:
How Long Does Sunscreen Last?
Since the AAD recommends applying sunscreen on a daily basis, a bottle of sunscreen should not last very long. However, you may have different bottle and containers of sunscreens, some of which you use more often than others. If you’ve got an older bottle, follow these guidelines:
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone use sunscreen that offers the following:
Physical sunscreen, otherwise known as sunblock, such as zinc oxide, will stop all sunlight from reaching the skin. However, sunblock is very thick and opaque, and will not absorb into your skin. They can be messy and hard to wash off, so are often not a first choice for the average consumer. They can be great though, for children (some come in bright colors, which is fun for kids), people with very sensitive skin, or to protect a scar from discoloring in the sun.
Many skin-care and beauty products contain some of the same chemicals that are used in sunscreen, but unless they are labeled with an SPF, they don’t provide any protection from the sun. If they are labeled SPF 15 or higher, just keep in mind that the amount of sunscreen required to provide a full coverage and protection is quite a lot. If you are not using the full amount required to provide adequate protection, don’t use cosmetics with SPF as your only source of protection.
Sunburn treatment cannot heal your skin or prevent damage to it, but you can address the symptoms of sunburn, such as pain, swelling and discomfort.
There are at-home treatments to help with the discomfort of a mild sunburn:
If at-home care isn’t working, our doctor may prescribe:
Pain medication. Over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers can help control both the pain and swelling of sunburn. They are especially effective when taken soon after sun exposure. Your doctor may recommend ibuprofen or naproxen. There are some types of pain relievers that can be applied to your skin as gels.
Medications that control itching. Corticosteroids can be applied to your skin to help with itching as your burned skin heals. This kind of medication is often combined with pain relievers.
A mild sunburn does not usually require a visit to the doctor. However, if you have a severe burn, or your symptoms don’t subside after a few days, you should see a doctor. Most likely, you will see your primary care physician first, and then you may be referred to a dermatologist.
See medical advice if you are experiencing:
You should also see a doctor as soon as possible if you notice any signs of skin cancer or pre-cancerous lesions.
Before you go see your doctor:
Make a list the medications you’re taking — including vitamins, herbs and over-the-counter drugs. (Remember, some drugs increase your sensitivity to UV light!)
Be prepared to answer the following questions:
For more information on The U.V. Index and checking it for your area in the United States, visit The Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
For a comprehensive sunscreen FAQ:
For information about melanoma, including how to perform self-checks on your skin, visit the American Melanoma Foundation.
American Academy of Dermatology
Skin Cancer Foundation
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