Fun in the sun doesn’t always stay fun, does it? A few hours of lazily drinking in warm, soothing rays of sunshine can turn ugly when you don’t protect your skin, and the damage can go far beyond a bad rash. So, if you’ve ever woken up to seared, sun-damaged skin and thought “Yeah, I’m never letting this happen again”, you’ve come to the right place. Here is everything you need to know about your sunburn, how to treat it, and how to prevent it in the future.
The Anatomy of Your Skin
Your skin is your body’s largest organ. It’s made of a protein called keratin, the same protein associated with hair and nails. Your skin’s main purpose is to protect your insides from the environment– harmful bacteria, toxins, chemicals, temperatures, etc.– but it also plays a key role in your nervous system.
Your skin has several layers to it, but it can be divided into three central sections:
- The epidermis is the outermost layer, the one we can see, and it is constantly shedding and regenerating. It contains small vents called pores that let heat and moisture escape from the lower layers of skin. The epidermis often bears the brunt of most skin-related ailments, like acne, eczema, psoriasis, and melanoma.
- The dermis is the “middle” layer of skin. It’s very thick and is mostly responsible for keeping bacteria and other harmful microorganisms from entering the body. It’s also where your hair follicles, sweat glands, and nerve endings are located.
- The hypodermis, or subcutis as it’s often called, is a layer of fat that acts as a buffer for your innards, kind of like a shock-pad. It lines up against your muscle tissue to absorb any blows from outside the body. It also insulates heat to keep your insides a consistent temperature.
The epidermis is the layer that suffers the most from sun damage. To help protect it, our bodies create a pigment known as melanin, and the more of it your body makes, the darker your skin gets. It’s common for people to purposefully try to produce more melanin by tanning, but the main purpose of this darkening isn’t cosmetic– it helps ward off harmful radiation from the sun. Depending on your genetics, though, your body may be too sensitive to withstand much UV exposure, and your day could end in a nasty burn rather than your desired “honeyglow”.
Examining a Sunburn
If you find yourself on the other side of a rough trip to the beach, you’ll probably feel the symptoms of sunburn set in rather quickly. And depending on how much exposure you’ve had, you’ll receive one of three levels of burns:
- First-degree burns are the most common, and the least harmful. They tend to happen annually as the weather gets warmer and people spend more time outdoors. A first-degree burn will cause redness and some discomfort, but no blistering or peeling.
- Second-degree burns are more severe than first-degree, but they don’t require medical attention. Their discoloration is more aggressive, accompanied by an ongoing tight or sizzling sensation in the afflicted area. It’s common for these burns to blister and peel.
- Third-degree burns require professional medical treatment. The discomfort level is substantially higher than the previous two degrees: the burns are painful enough to make movement unbearable, and they are often accompanied by white-ringed blisters that can grow up to two inches in diameter. Severe dehydration is often present as well.
The unifying complaint among all three degrees is the raw, burning reaction your skin has to overexposure to UV (ultraviolet) radiation. The blood vessels in your skin will expand to get immune blood cells to the damaged area, which is what causes it to get red and swollen. And depending on your genetics, and level of exposure, you’ll receive a more or less extreme burn.
Unfortunately, the dangers of exposing your skin to UV rays don’t stop at discoloration or discomfort. Placing your skin in damaging situations can eventually lead to:
- Heatstroke— Too much time spent in intense, unwavering sunlight not only burns your skin, but it also makes you feel like you’ve “cooked” your insides. It’s categorized by intense dehydration, feverish tremors, nausea, and muscle cramps.
- Unwanted Cosmetic Changes— Getting your skin all red may look ghastly while it’s burnt, but it’ll only get worse with prolonged exposure to UV radiation. Not a fan of deep wrinkles and fine lines? Avoid tanning– both outdoors and in booths– at all costs!
- A Weakened Immune System— UV radiation has been known to weaken the body’s natural ability to fend off disease. This would make you more sensitive to sunlight, jeopardize the effectiveness of certain immunizations, and could even cause your body to have unpredictable reactions to some medications.
- *Skin Cancer— When your skin cells are consistently getting damaged, it becomes more and more likely that the DNA stored within them mutates. These mutated cells may begin to multiply until they create tumors. The two greatest causes of skin cancers are ultraviolet exposure from 1) the sun and 2) tanning beds. It affects 1 in every 5 Americans over 70 and getting 5 or more sunburns in your lifetime doubles your risk for developing melanoma.
*Before we move on, here’s a QUICK PSA to readers with dark or deep skin tones–having lots of melanin in your skin isn’t enough to prevent critical skin damage. People with dark skin can still develop serious health conditions when exposed to ultraviolet radiation, including skin cancer. You are less likely to develop it, yes, but you are also more likely to die from it. Take care of your skin so it can continue to take care of you.
How to Treat Sunburns (and Other Skin Damage)
Now that you’ve been sufficiently spooked and you’re eyeing that peeling patch of red skin on your shoulder, DON’T PANIC. Most unsightly, sun-induced markings fade with time, and many skin cancers are very treatable when they’re caught early (we’ll discuss how you can do that in a bit). For now, let’s turn our attention to those itchy, burning rashes plaguing your epidermis.
Sadly, there is no “cure” for a sunburn. (Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if there were?) But here are some of the tried-and-true methods for treating a nasty sun-induced rash:
- Drink a crazy amount of water. Your skin is over 60% water, so rehydrating it once it’s been charred is essential. Generally providing your body with lots of liquids will help it repair itself a lot quicker, and your skin is no exception!
- Cool off with baths and showers. Contact with cold water helps soothe burns from the outside. Take frequent dips to help ease any swelling or burning sensations.
- Take anti-inflammatory meds. Over-the-counter medications like Ibuprofen and Tylenol can help lessen the pain and swelling from bad burns, so take advantage! (Be sure to use it as is recommended)
- Use aloe or soy-based moisturizers. Seriously, they’re the best. They’re not only great at calming aggravated skin by bringing coolness to the area, but they also provide much-needed moisture to cracked skin and help prevent peeling and blistering.
- Avoid direct sunlight like the plague. Obviously, you can still go outside, but trust us when we say you do NOT want to get burned twice in a row. Cover any and all burns with soft but dense fabric– make sure it’s thick enough that you can’t see through it– and actively seek shade while outdoors.
- Do NOT pop any blisters. Just don’t. They could get infected if they’re not taken care of, or they could heal improperly and leave you with unwanted marks. Let your body work its natural magic and the boils will eventually go away on their own.
- Seek medical attention if necessary. As we’ve said before, you don’t really need to unless the burn wanders into third-degree territory, but if you feel like you may faint or if you’re experiencing excruciating pain, then don’t hesitate to notify a medical professional.
Preventing Skin Damage
Obviously, the best treatment for any condition is prevention, so how can we prevent damaging our body’s most vulnerable organ? Well, skincare is a medical and cosmetic field that’s far too extensive to cover in a single article. But here are some practical tips for protecting your skin to ensure that it stays happy and healthy for as long as possible:
- Water is your friend. Keeping your body hydrated enables your skin to repair itself efficiently, and it’ll give you that dewy, youthful glow everyone wants! (Also 9 out of 10 times the best thing you can do for your body is to drink more water. So… go do that.)
- Invest in skincare. Scrubbing your skin of impurities will help get rid of any bacteria or residue that could cause damage. Most skincare treatments also encourage anti-aging and pore-cleaning products that could help preserve your skin!
- Stay shady. Use umbrellas while at the beach, opt for the lawn chair most shielded from the sun, and invest in some brimmed hats and sunglasses to keep your head and shoulders UV-free when you’re outdoors.
- Avoid tanning at all costs. Seriously. You’re going to likely get some sun while you’re outside because, well, you’re a human. But stay away from tanning booths or intentionally laying out in the sun. Use sunless skin darkeners if you want that sweet golden glow!
- Keep applying sunscreen. It’s a pain in the butt to reapply, but you’ll be extremely grateful for it in the long run. Find the proper SPF and lather up!
- Keep an eye on moles, freckles, and sores. Check your body regularly for early signs of skin cancer, which you can learn about more extensively here. Or, even better…
- Find a dermatologist. Skin specialists will be able to treat skin-related ailments as well as help you keep it in good, healthy shape, so find one near you!
There you have it– all of the basic info you need to care for your sun-damaged skin. Take it, run with it, and keep your body happy and healthy!