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Stay Safe in the Sun: Treating and Preventing Sunburn

Updated on September 6, 2012
We have all done it. We have all laughed (and cried) about it. But sunburn is more serious than many of us realise
We have all done it. We have all laughed (and cried) about it. But sunburn is more serious than many of us realise | Source

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What is Sunburn?

After being cooped up all winter, most of us jump at the first chance to spend some time in the sun outdoors. All too often, this results in a bright red, hot, and painful sunburn. But what is sunburn?

Unlike their namesakes, sunburns are not the same as the burn you get by touching a hot object. Sunburn is caused by Ultra Violet (UV) radiation damaging and mutating the DNA in your skin cells; Burns are caused by thermal damage to the cells of your skin but leave the DNA untouched. As a result of this, sunburns can cause lasting damage to the DNA in your skin cells.

The symptoms of a sunburn are actually caused by your body trying to repair the damage:

  • Blood vessels in the area swell, allowing blood to rush to the damaged area. This causes the red colour
  • Your blood is hot, and so an increase in bloodflow to the area also makes it feel as if the burn is giving off heat
  • The body also triggers the release of chemicals which trigger inflammation to protect the area. This makes sunburns swollen and painful
  • Some of the skin cells are so badly damaged that they must be destroyed to prevent them from becoming cancerous. This is what causes the skin peeling associated with a sunburn.

It is vital to remember that heat does not cause sunburn - this is why so many people get burned skiing or on a cool day. The primary cause of sunburn is UVB radiation, one of three types of UV radiation emitted by the sun

Type of UV Radiation
Deep skin penetration
Ages the skin
Shallow skin penetration
Causes skinburn and skin cancer
*Whilst UVC is a dangerous radiation, this is filtered out by the ozone layer and so is not absorbed by our skin

Facts about Sunburn

  • The sun emits Ultraviolet radiation - this is what tans us, but is a proven carcinogen.
  • Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the USA.
  • 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
  • 90% of paediatric melanoma cases occur in girls aged 10-19.
  • Up to 90% of the visible changes attributed to aging are caused by the sun.
  • A painful sunburn just once every two years can triple your risk of skin cancer.

Myths About Tanning

  1. A tan is a sign of health. Your skin has changed colour because it has been damaged. 90% of the visible signs of aging are due to the effects of the sun. The more you tan, the faster you age your skin
  2. A 'base-tan' offers protection. Experiments have shown that even a strong tan only has an SPF of around 4. This will not protect your skin from UV damage.
  3. You need to burn to get a decent tan. A burn is a sign of serious damage to your skin. Cells damaged by UV are at a much higher risk of dividing uncontrollably - a key characteristic of cancer.
  4. Fake tan provides the same protection as a real tan. Even if this were true, it is still a laughably small amount of protection. As it is, fake tans only change the colour of your skin, and does not increase melanin production.
  5. Sun block/screen in the morning will last all day. Unfortunately sweat, humidity, and friction all remove the protective layer of sunscreen, no matter how high its SPF. It is recommended that sunscreen is applied generously and frequently - at least every 3 hours and more if you a sweating or swimming (yes...even if it says it is waterproof.)

Sun Exposure Advice

Sunburn can lead to serious health complications further down the road so this is very much a case of prevention is better than cure. The following guidelines (as issued by numerous medical bodies) can reduce your risk of sunburn:

  • Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm, when the sun's UV rays are strongest.
  • Cover up with a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses.
  • Use at least SPF15 sunscreen - apply generously and reapply often.*
  • Reapply suncreams after swimming or bathing - even those that claim to be waterproof.
  • Beware of reflections - 75% of UV are reflected back from snow, 15% from sand and 10% from water

Remember, if the UV rays are strong enough, you can burn even on cool cloudy days!

*Ensure your suncream is in date (most sunscreens have a shelf life of around 3 years) and offers broad UVA/B protection. In the UK look for at least 4 stars.

Sun Protection for Kids

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the sun - infants and toddlers even more so. There are some particular ways you can protect children from harmful UV rays:

  1. Use shade - babies should be kept in complete shade. There are a plethora of shades, parasols and canopies that are available to protect young children, many of which can attach to prams and buggies.
  2. Cover them up - protect a baby's skin using loose-fitting clothes and a wide brim hat. Particularly young children may benefit from clothes (particularly swimwear) that has a high SPF factor.
  3. Wear sunglasses - as soon as the child can wear them it is a good idea to purchase some UVA/B protective sunglasses (they don't have to be expensive)
  4. Hats - encourage children to choose hats they like that provide protection for the face, neck and shoulders.
  5. Use sunscreen - Use a high SPF15+ as a minimum but preferably higher. Children, infant and baby formulations are available that do not irritate the skin. Focus on applying to the face, ears, neck, feet and backs of hands - any area that cannot be protected by clothing.
  6. Reapply sunscreen regularly - sunscreen is easily washed, rubbed and sweated off.
  7. Don't forget school times - kids can burn as easily at school as in the holidays. Give children a hat and smother them in sunscreen before they leave. If they cannot apply sunscreen themselves, cover them up with loose-fitting clothing.

How to Prevent Sunburn: Medical Advice

% UV absorbed
As you can see - even factor 50 does not absorb ALL UV radiation. All sunscreens/sunblocks should be applied generously and reapplied often, and certainly after swimming (even those that claim they are waterproof)

Sunscreen, Sunblock and SPF

What is the difference between sunscreen and sunblock? Put simply, sunblock reflects the sun's rays (blocking the UV from reaching the skin); sunscreen absorbs the UV radiation before it reaches the skin. But the amount of absorption depends on the SPF

SPF stands for sun protection factor and is a measure of how much UV is blocked by the sunscreen: the higher the number the more protection is offered. Although many people believe the SPF is a multiplier for how long you can spend in the sun (e.g. if you usually burn after 10 minutes and put on SPF15, you can spend 150 minutes in the sun before burning) this falls apart the second you start sweating, swimming or rubbing your skin. In general, sunscreen should be reapplied regularly - at least every 2-3hrs - regardless of SPF.

How to Treat and Soothe Sunburn

Sunburn can be very painful - particularly for children. The first priority should always be to avoid sunburn in the first place. However, if you do end up with sunburn, there are some easy ways that this pain can be relieved:

  1. Cool baths with baking soda (even gentle showers can hurt, or even break the skin if the burn is bad enough) Cold compresses can also cool and soothe the skin.
  2. After-sun lotion - these formulations tend to contain soothing ingredients such as aloe vera. Some contain hydrocotisone. Always read the label and do not apply more than 4 times in a 24 hour period. Do not use petroleum jelly (e.g. vaseline).
  3. Aspirin (adults only) or Ibuprofen (children) - this reduces inflammation and helps with the pain.
  4. High SPF sunscreen. It is vitally important that you do not allow the damaged skin to be exposed to UV. Cover up with loose fitting clothes and apply sunscreen regularly; even better avoid any exposure to the sun until your skin has healed.

How to Soothe Sunburn: Video Advice

Sunburn Quiz

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Skin Melanoma - The Dark Side of Tanning

UV radiation is known as an 'ionising radiation' - it has sufficient energy to interact with molecules and knock electrons off of them. This creates dangerously reactive ions that bounce around your cells, damaging anything they knock into: think bull-in-a-china-shop. This can cause mutations in DNA which can ultimately lead to cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US; they are so common that the National Cancer Institute prefaces all of its lists of common cancers with 'excluding non-melanoma skin cancer.'

Melanoma is a relatively rare form of skin cancer, accounting for only around 10% of all skin cancer cases. However, Melanoma is an extremely dangerous form of cancer, and is the leading cause of death from skin disease in the US. There are huge regional variations in the incidences of melanoma of the skin, with frequency being loosely related to latitude.

Prognosis is all down to disease progression when treatment begins. Caught early, outcomes are generally good, caught at an advanced stage and few cases result in a complete cure. It is vitally important to get any:

  • new moles
  • irregularly shaped moles
  • growing moles
  • painful, scabbed or sore moles

checked out by your doctor urgently.

Estimated New Cases of Melanoma by State

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A markerCalifornia -
California, USA
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B markerFlorida -
Florida, USA
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C markerNew York -
New York, NY, USA
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D markerTexas -
Texas, USA
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E markerPensylvannia -
Pennsylvania, USA
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F markerAlaska -
Alaska, USA
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G markerNorth Dakota -
North Dakota, USA
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H markerWyoming -
Wyoming, USA
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    • TFScientist profile image

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @TahoeDoc: I completely agree. Kids should be kitted out with sunglasses as soon as they can tolerate them. You can even get wrap around ones that are difficult for kids to remove.

      One pet peeve about this is people wearing designer sunglasses that have absolutely no UVA/B protection. If you sell sunglasses, I think you should be required to make them sun-safe. As it is people don't read the label and think they are protected - a very dangerous state of affairs

    • TahoeDoc profile image

      TahoeDoc 5 years ago from Lake Tahoe, California

      This is great! We live at an elevation of 6550 feet and sun protection is even more important. Also, I cannot stress enough the importance of wearing eye protection. Cataracts and other eye diseases are increased by sun exposure. I once decided to not wear sunglasses or goggles while skiing on a snowy, cloudy day. I detected no sun, but still got painful snow blindness that kicked in on the way home. It hurt so bad that the lights of the oncoming cars were unbearable- even with my eyes closed. It didn't last long, but it sure was a good lesson for me. My kids are not allowed to ski or go to the beach without eye protection. Me either.

      Great hub!

    • TFScientist profile image

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @wayseeker: I'm glad you liked it. It is really important that we take sun exposure seriously, particularly with young children. Attitudes to the sun even 10-15 years ago were much more relaxed than they should have been.

    • wayseeker profile image

      wayseeker 5 years ago from Colorado


      I love the variety of ways in which the information is presented here, and the comprehensiveness of it all. I knew much of this in a vague sort of way, but this really cleans up my understanding. It also makes me very thankful for the ways in which we've been protective of ourselves and our kids when it comes to the sun, though we need to be careful about reapplying!

      Really a wonderful resource here. So great to be working with such brilliant writers!


    • TFScientist profile image

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      Thanks for all the comments! I'm pleased people found this useful as well as interesting. It is so vital that people avoid sunburn at all costs.

      It seems that the craze for a tan is a recent phenomenon - centuries went by with people trying to make themselves look paler then we swing completely the opposite way.

    • profile image

      summerberrie 5 years ago

      I am out in the sun so much during the summer months here on the coast of SC. It is a valuable cause to educated people about the dangers of UVA over exposure. Thanks for the useful information.

    • sampe profile image

      sampe 5 years ago from Boston, Massachusetts

      Great article! Helpful information!! Voted up and interesting.

    • MickiS profile image

      MickiS 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Great Hub! As an avid tennis player (and in California no less!), I'm super sensitive to protecting myself from the sun. This is much needed information. Thanks for publishing it!

      One thing, though, in your table, you show UVA causing aging of the skin. It is also a cause of skin cancer. Specifically, UVA absorption increases the damaging effects of UVB.

    • Angela Kane profile image

      Angela Kane 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      I never used sunburn lotion until recently. Now I try to make sure any lotion or creams I purchase have SPF protection included and I also try to never stay in the sun too long. Voted up and interesting.

    • Crystal Tatum profile image

      Crystal Tatum 5 years ago from Georgia

      Wow, very thorough job, and a very timely topic. The next time someone tells me I'm too pale, I'm going to point that person to this hub. I've read that most people don't apply enough lotion to provide the protection that is stated on the bottle anyway, so it's usually a good idea to get a higher SPF than you think you need. I'm very pale and the last time I went to the beach I used SPF 70, reapplied pretty frequently, and still got a bit burned!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

      I am from Florida and this is a great hub! This is vital information to everyone living anywhere. The sun does so much damage to skin, it is unbelieveable. All your tips and advice are spot on and although it is so fun to spend a vacation at the beach - you must protect the skin now because 20-30 down the line you will be experiencing skin cancer. That is the biggest cancer people get down here in Florida. Even people who have not had bad burns in their youth are getting skin cancer in their latter years. Thank you for sharing this pertinet information!

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      What a valuable article - I wish we had had this type of focus on safety and sun exposure years ago, rather than the huge emphasis on tanning.

      I'm a bit surprised that New York has a higher rate of melanoma than we do here in Texas! I wonder why?

      Outstanding information - thanks! Voted up and shared!

    • Mmargie1966 profile image

      Mmargie1966 5 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      Very interesting! Loved the videos...voted up and useful!