Dealing with Sunburn

By Ruthie Harper, M.D. – May 1, 2013

Believe it or not, even in today's world where there is a wealth of knowledge about the damaging effects of the sun, I still get many patients coming to me to try to reverse the unsightly and sometimes downright dangerous effects of having been exposed to too much sun while enjoying one too many piña coladas. UV exposure from the sun causes skin deterioration and photoaging, robbing skin of a youthful appearance and leading to pigment changes. Sun damage accumulates with each exposure and increases exponentially when a sunburn occurs, damaging your skin’s DNA and causing persistent inflammation and oxidative stress.

Even those with the best intentions sometimes end up in my chair with sun-related skin issues. If you do get a burn, there are ways to treat, calm, and soothe the skin.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, is to stop the UV radiation. Get out of the sun! If you must be outdoors, cover up your exposed skin and use sunscreen with an SPF of 25 or higher, reapplying frequently. Relief is the next step, and there are many remedies that can help heal, soothe, and calm the skin, depending on the severity. For mild cases (or cases that don’t require a trip to the hospital), I recommend the following:

  • Medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are helpful, especially when started early, to help decrease pain and inflammation. If your case is more extreme, your doctor may prescribe you prescription-strength, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs).
  • Soothing the skin can be done with a treatment as basic as aloe vera, which is the gel-like juice of the aloe vera plant that can take the sting and redness out of sunburn by constricting the blood vessels—reducing redness, swelling, and free-radical damage. You should apply the gel directly to the burn five to six times per day, for several days.
  • The delicate skin on the face should be treated differently than the body. New ingredients in the skin care marketplace are ideal for soothing sensitive skin. Some scientifically proven ingredients to look for include sepicalm (sodium cocyl aminoacids) and seawhip; both are great in helping reduce irritation and calm sensitive, irritated, sunburned skin while infusing hydration. Arnica and Canadian willow are also great ingredients that provide superior healing benefits and visibly decrease redness and inflammation.
  • Cool, not ice-cold, baths and compresses work well to soothe the skin. You can make one at home with equal parts milk and water, or use Burow’s solution, which you can pick up at your local drugstore. This product usually contains about 13 percent aluminum acetate and has astringent and antibacterial properties that are helpful in treating skin conditions such as rashes and burns. Silver sulfadiazine (1 percent cream, Thermazene) is another topical cream that can be applied, but avoid use on the face. Avoid bath salts, oils, and perfumes that may cause irritation, and use fragrance-free skin moisturizers.

Of course, as a doctor, I have to say that prevention is so important! It is always best to avoid sun exposure to the point of sunburn. If you take the right steps and properly protect yourself—and are diligent about protection—you will likely avoid sunburns and the short-term consequences that come along with them—painful inflammation, redness, and blistering—as well as the long-term risks of skin damage and skin cancer.

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