Sunburns are painful and ugly, and it only gets worse when they start to peel. Keep reading to learn all about your sunburn, how to get some relief, and how to prevent it happening again!


Hello, May! Summer is just around the corner and everyone is excited to have some time around the pool and on the beach. That glowing summer tan is the goal, and nothing will stand in the way of fun in the sun. Freedom awaits after a little sunscreen is applied and forgotten about for the rest of the day. Hours later, a peek in the mirror reveals a horrifying sunburn. Some people shrug it off at first, but everyone regrets neglecting their sunscreen when the pain comes a few hours later.

Does this sound familiar? Probably. Studies showed that as of 2010, half of young adults get sunburned every year, and the numbers keep rising. Other studies show that there has been a significant increase of young adults who use sunscreen or take other steps to protect their skin. These two factors show that while more people may be using sunscreen, they are probably not using it correctly.

What is Painful and Red All Over?

sunburn is an allergic reaction to direct DNA damage by UV rays from the sun. Yep. Humans are allergic to the sun. Some people just react by turning a golden brown while others turn a fire-engine red. Either way, it is a sign that the UV radiation from the sun has damaged the DNA in your skin cells.

Luckily, the skin is the largest organ on your body and it is fast healing, so it sends blood to the damaged area to help heal and create new skin underneath. The extra blood in the capillaries is what causes the redness.That is why when you press on it, the skin will turn white and then go back to red as the capillaries refill. As new skin develops, the body tries to get rid of the old, damaged skin cells and this leads to the dreaded peeling.

Do not hesitate to protect your skin with sunscreen. Sunburns can occur in less than 15 minutes. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Sunburns by Degrees

Just like any other burn, there are three different classifications for it.

1st degree sunburn: this is pretty typical. It is pink or red, painful and goes away within a week or so. Most people have experienced this at some point.

2nd degree sunburn: this type is also fairly common. It is very red, very painful, and little blisters form on top of sunburn. It probably itches really bad. This takes much longer to heal because deep skin layers have been damaged. Do not pop the blisters as that could lead to infections later.

3rd degree sunburn: this is not so common. The skin may turn bright red and purplish with lots of blisters and waxy white areas. Many deep skin layers and maybe nerve endings have been damaged. It will be excruciatingly painful. This is also accompanied by fever, nausea, headache, and dehydration. If this occurs, you should see a doctor immediately.

Fun Fact: What do humans, pigs, horses, and walruses all have in common? They may burn with too much sun exposure!

The Sun Does Not Believe in Equality

Different skin types react differently

Depending on your skin type, you are more susceptible to burning. Some people cannot achieve that golden glow and end up red and peeling whenever they try. Others do not burn no matter how often they forget their sunscreen. Everyone’s skin is just a little different but most can fit into one of these categories determined by the amount of melanin pigment in the skin.

Fitzpatrick Skin Phototypes:

  • Type I: Pale white skin, blue/green eyes, red hair. Burns easily, cannot tan.
  • Type II: Fair skin, blue eyes. Burns easily, tans with difficulty.
  • Type III: Darker white skin. Tans easily after the initial burn.
  • Type IV: Light brown/olive skin. Usually does not burn, tans easily.
  • Type V: Brown skin. Rarely burns, tans darkly easily.
  • Type VI: Dark brown or black skin. Never burns, always tans very dark.

People with types I, II, and III are much more susceptible to burning and should take extra care to cover up when going outside. However, all types should apply sunscreen regularly to prevent sun damage. Another thing to remember is that genetic conditions or medications may increase skin sensitivity to the UV rays and burning.

Dear those of you who tan,

I hate you.

Those of us who burn

UV rays are impossible to avoid

If you want to keep your skin as healthy and beautiful, it is important to block the UV rays as much as possible. This includes the days we might not see as potentially harmful. Cloudy days, for example, are the perfect cover for a sneaky sunburn because, while the day may be cool and the sun hidden, the UV rays still cut through the clouds and wreak havoc on your skin. Altitude can also play a significant factor. The higher up you are, the more likely you are to get sunburned because there is less of the earth’s atmosphere to block the sunlight. UV exposure increases about 4% for every 1000 ft gain in elevation.

A good rule of thumb to follow is the shadow rule. If the shadow is shorter than you are tall, the UV rays are more powerful and likely to give you a painful sunburn if you’re not careful. During this time of day, it is best to either cover up well or seek some shade.

Another thing to consider at home or when taking a trip is the UV Index scale. You can search for the UV index in almost any major city in the US to see the intensity of UV rays in that part of the world. Phoenix, AZ currently reaches a high of 8 on the UV index (a high rating) from 10am until 3pm every day. People there should either stay inside or protect their skin while they are out and about.

Another Summer Bummer? Margarita Rash

Dr. Newman of Affiliated Dermatology informs us that “Margarita Rash or Lime Disease, not to be confused with tick-related LYME disease, is a skin condition that occurs after skin has been exposed to both lime juice and sunlight. Limes contain the chemical furanocoumarin, which sensitizes the skin to the damaging effects of the UV radiation in sunlight.

“About 24-48 hours after exposure, an itchy, red, even blistering rash occurs in the area of skin in contact with the lime juice (with concomitant sunlight). This is referred to as a phytophotodermatitis. Bartenders or anyone handling lime juice and absorbing sunshine may develop this condition. The best way to protect yourself from this is to prevent it.”

“Take caution in spilling the line contents onto your skin, and any contents that do come in contact with your skin should be washed off with water. Avoiding or limiting UV exposure is also essential. If the rash has already developed, you may benefit visiting your dermatologist to obtain a topical prescription anti-inflammatory medicine. Over-the-counter Benadryl can be used to alleviate itchiness and to help with sleep difficulties secondary to discomfort. Although long-term effects of margarita rash are uncommon, having the affected skin become darker (hyperpigmented) or even scarred is possible. An identical rash can be caused by skin contact and UV exposure with other plants, as well: various citrus fruits, figs, celery, parsnips, and carrots,” Newman says.

Want some ice for that burn?

Here are ten cool tips to help you get some relief and heal faster::

  1. Stay out of the sun until fully healed! More sun will make it worse.
  2. Cool compresses
  3. Cool showers or baths (don’t even try a warm one)
  4. Use lotions that have aloe vera. If it has lidocaine in it too, it’s even better!
  5. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Drinks lot of water and electrolytes. Replacing lost body fluids will help you skin heal faster.
  6. Moisturize regularly to keep the skin hydrated.
  7. Hydrocortisone cream may help relieve itching and swelling
  8. Do not pick at peeling skin. It is very tempting but it is better left alone.
  9. Take pain relievers such as Ibuprofen, or naproxen to relieve pain and inflammation
  10. Take an antihistamine like benadryl. It should ease itching and help you sleep.This is an allergic reaction after all.

Your Skin Will Thank You

Sunscreen! Sunscreen! Sunscreen! Dermatologists recommend choosing a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and applying generously at least 15 minutes before you go outside and then every one or two hours after that. Remembering to little things is important too. A common mistake made is forgetting to sunscreen a small area like the ears or scalp if you have a part. Another mistake is relying on SPF alone.

Staying in the shade away from reflective surfaces such as water or sand is also a good idea while the UV rays are strongest between 10am and 4pm.

Covering up with a layer of clothing can make a significant difference. Dark colors and tightly woven fabrics provide the most protection. It may not be the most fashionable look on the beach, but you skin will thank you, be with you forever, and look amazing! There are many sun protective clothes for sale now that are very stylish! Also consider wearing a shady hat and sunglasses to protect your neck, face, and eyes. Yes, your eyes can burn too!

Some people eat their sunscreen in the form of zinc pills. Be sunburn free both inside and out! It is no substitute for applying sunscreen or covering up, but it is definitely helpful and could give you some breathing room if you can’t get back to apply your sunscreen every hour on the dot or if you have super fair skin that always burns.

Avoid tanning beds. They increase your risk of melanoma by 75% and make age prematurely. You don’t need the fake glow to look beautiful. Be comfortable in your own skin.

Dr. Newman says, “It’s never too late in life to protect your skin from UV radiation from the sun. Many of my patients over the age of 40 will admit that they had sunburns as a child, and often ask me whether or not they can mitigate the harm from these past exposures to significant sun radiation. Having a healthy immune system is likely important for preventing skin cancers.”

“Unfortunately, we have yet to find ways to boost our immunity to prevent skin cancers. There isn’t any science that demonstrates we can turn back the clock on our sun exposure. However, we can minimize any further exposure simply by minimizing sun exposure and applying sun screens throughout the day,” Newman says.

Check Yourself…Everywhere

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. So be aware! Melanoma, the most common type of skin cancer, is caused by too much exposure to UV rays. In other words, a sunburn. In fact, a person’s risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns in their life. The good news: if you sunscreen daily with an SPF of 30 or greater, you reduce the risk of developing melanoma by 50% and it is never too late to start applying sunscreen! Make it a habit to regularly protect your skin.

Another good habit is to thoroughly check yourself every month or so for anything that looks weird or different on your body over time. Especially if any odd lumps or moles form or change shape. If you notice anything weird, contact your dermatologist and have them check it out.

According to Dr. Newman, “I highly recommend being seen by a dermatologist to screen for skin cancers, regardless of being an otherwise healthy adult whom currently protects their skin from UV radiation. No human being is ever immune from getting a skin cancer. But with saying that, it’s important to know that you could (and you should) live a quality lifestyle and enjoy all the things you like to do, as long as you are having your skin checked by a skin specialist along side of diligently protecting your skin from the harmful UV rays of the sun.”

“What’s great about being a dermatologist is that we commonly find cancers when they are early and less life threatening. We often get to tell our patients we can cure their cancers with a simple surgery. This is why I stress to my patients the importance of having a skin check regularly,” said Dr. Newman.

See a Doctor If …

You should seek medical help if you or a child has severe blistering over a large portion of the body, has a fever and chills, or is woozy or confused. Don’t scratch or pop blisters, which can lead to infection. Signs of infection include red streaks or oozing pus.

Bottom line: Your skin will heal, but real damage has been done. “Repeat sunburns put you at a substantial risk for skin cancer and premature skin aging, and I want people to ‘learn from the burn,’” Dr. Brackeen says. Review the guidelines in The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Prevention Handbook. Remember how bad this sunburn felt, then commit to protecting yourself from the sun every day, all year long.

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