The damage is done. You have been told for years to wear a hat and sunscreen (minimum SPF 30) and to stay out of direct sunlight between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. But, again, the sun wrapped you up in its relaxing warmth, and now you’re burnt to a crisp.
You can almost feel the crows feet forming around your eyes and the deep creases folding into your forehead. Is there anything you can do to lessen the damage? Justin G. Madson, M.D., Ph.D., dermatologist at Midwest Dermatology Clinic, P.C., gives practical advice on remedies for both serious and mild sunburns.
If you have a serious sunburn, you need to see your doctor immediately. “Signs of serious sunburn are blistering, a rash, excessive itching immediately following sun exposure, fever, or an infection that results from scratching or an open blister,” says Dr. Madson.
“Excessive pain is also a sign that it is time to see a doctor, especially if it cannot be controlled by over-the-counter pain relievers. Your dermatologist can prescribe treatments for these symptoms, including prescription cortisone creams, antihistamines, and pain relievers.”
For milder burns, try a couple home remedies. “Sooth the area with a cold, wet cloth for 10-15 minutes. This takes the heat out of the skin,” says Dr. Madson. A cool bath and moisturizing lotion can also be helpful. However, “avoid lotions that contain petrolatum [i.e. Vaseline], as these ointments form a barrier that traps the heat within the sunburned skin.
“Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help with moderate pain,” says Dr. Madson. After trying some of these immediate remedies, it is a good idea to let your skin heal on its own. “Leave blisters alone. They are nature’s Band-Aids and protect newly healing skin from dirt and bacteria on the surface of the skin. The outer layers of your skin are there to protect what is underneath. Allow nature to shed the skin when it is no longer needed.”
If you are on vacation and cannot avoid the sun, “apply sunscreen SPF 30+ liberally to all areas of the skin and wear long-sleeve, sun-protective clothing. The sun’s damaging rays can penetrate clothing, so it’s necessary to double your efforts,” says Dr. Madson. “Make sure the fabric is a little loose. Tight fabric stretches, letting in more light. And try to plan vacation activities outside during morning, late afternoon, and evening hours when the harmful rays are not as strong.
“There is a long list of skin conditions caused by long-term sun exposure, the most serious of which is skin cancer. It’s a serious, invasive cancer that spreads to vital organs in the body if not diagnosed and treated early. And sun exposure, especially sunburn, is the leading cause,” says Dr. Madson.
Next time you cozy into the lawn chair on a sunny summer afternoon, remember this statistic from Dr. Madson: “Studies show that your risk of developing melanoma doubles after five sunburns in your lifetime. That’s why sun protection is so important.”
Surprising Fact: “We get more sun damage through the car window than previously thought. A new study found that 53 percent of skin cancers occur on the left side of the body as opposed to the middle or right side. That is attributed to the many miles we put behind the wheel and the increased sun exposure. Whether the window is rolled down or up, you are at risk—windshield glass only protects us from UVB rays. We get a steady dose of UVA while driving (or as a passenger). Reflective factors, such as snow or water, also increase dangers of ultraviolet light,” says Dr. Madson.