The sun: we love it, we crave it, we need it to survive. There’s nothing more wonderful than basking in the glow on a warm day, and time in the sunshine can make us feel better physically and emotionally. Sometimes, though, the sun harms us more than it helps.
Hot climates, high altitudes, reflective snow, and other conditions can turn a little sun into a painful experience quickly. It’s powerful UV rays can cause uncomfortable sunburns that leave us itchy, peely, and even blistered for days or weeks. Most of us have experienced this phenomenon at least once – but it never gets any better.
Luckily, there is hope! In this article, we’ll give you the low-down on how to get rid of a sunburn. We’ll start with the basics – how do we get burnt, and what it means for our bodies – and give you tips and tricks for treating a burn from prevention to aftercare.
The Science of Sunburns
Although “burn” is right in the name, many people are surprised to learn that sunburns are, in fact, burns – a lot like those you might get from accidentally touching the stove or from running across black-top in your bare feet on a hot day. Although caused by UV radiation instead of a hot surface, they still share a lot of the same features and treatments as other burns.
While most are pretty mild, sunburns can range from a minor annoyance to a severe and even life-threatening condition, and they can almost always benefit from treatment. In this section, we’ll go through the different types of burns and some of the unique features of sunburns.
Types of Burns
If you’re like this writer, you’ve got a guilty love for TV medical dramas – and you’re probably familiar with terms like first-, second-, and third-degree when referring to burns. Although these terms are real (and still used by some), many healthcare providers now prefer to use different terms. Let’s go over them:
Superficial Burns (First-degree)
Superficial burns are the least damaging and usually the easiest to treat. In this type, only the outermost layer of skin (called the “epidermis”) is burned. Most sunburns fall into this category, as do the classic symptoms: red, hot, and, painful skin that might peel after some time has passed.
Partial-Thickness Burns (Second-degree)
The next level of burns is called “partial-thickness”, meaning that the burn affects part of the lower levels of skin (called the “dermis”). These burns are more severe, and on top of the redness and pain, you can expect to see blisters and swelling.
Sunburns are often partial-thickness, and these can be much more painful and difficult to deal with than a standard, mild sunburn.
Full-Thickness Burn (Third-degree)
These burns are the really bad ones, and affect both skin and the stuff below it. Full-thickness burns can be seriously dangerous and even life-threatening. Luckily, it is very, very rare for a sunburn to get this bad – so don’t worry too much.
Why Sunburns are Different
Sunburns have a lot of the same symptoms as other burns, and affect our cells in a lot of the same ways, too. However, there are a few things that make them different from other common surface burns – and they’re important to understand.
The Sun and Ultraviolet Rays
As mentioned above, sunburns are caused by invisible, ultraviolet radiation from the sun. This radiation isn’t harmful in moderation, and we actually need it to make things like vitamin D. However, if you expose your skin to it for too long, it can cause the actual DNA in your skin cells to break down – and that can have long-lasting impact.
Research shows that just one sunburn every two years can increase your risk of developing skin cancer by three times, and people with lighter skin tones are usually at higher risk. This means that while accidentally picking up a hot plate might be painful for a few days, getting a sunburn have lasting consequences.
Dehydration, Heat Exhaustion, and Infection, Oh My!
The other thing that makes sunburns a little different from other burns is that they often come along with other issues. If you’ve ever had a sunburn, you may have experienced the next-day exhaustion that comes with it – or headache, fever, and achiness. These symptoms might not be caused by the sunburn itself – but by dehydration, heat exhaustion, or even infection!
When we spend all day in the sun, chances are we lose a lot of water. When our skin gets burned, we can lose water through the burn, too, resulting in dehydration which can be mildly uncomfortable or very severe. On top of that, sun exposure and burns both increase our risk for conditions like heat exhaustion (like that grogginess, headache, and nausea) or heat stroke (a life-threatening condition).
Finally, as with all burns, sunburns leave our skin vulnerable to infection – especially when we have blisters. That can be a seriously big issue – especially when you’re camping or backpacking without a lot of clean water and bandages.
Treating Sunburns: Tips to Get You Feeling Better
We now know that sunburns can be anywhere from a mild annoyance to a life-changing problem – and that they always cause lasting damage. So, what can we do about it?
In this section, we’ll go over 5 tips for how to treat a sunburn so that you can get back to doing what you love as soon as possible.
Tip #1: Prevention is the Best Medicine
This may not seem like a treatment tip, but ultimately, prevention really is the best way to take care of sunburns. Most burns are easily avoidable, and the damage they cause to your skin isn’t worth the minor inconvenience it takes to stop it from happening in the first place. Here are a few of the best ways to prevent sunburns:
Sunscreen – Obviously!
Sunscreen is the first line of defense against sunburns, and it really works. Make sure to always put sunscreen on before you head out for the day when you know you’ll be getting a lot of rays – and make sure to get commonly missed spots like the top of the ears, back of the legs, and tops of the feet. People with light hair may even want to spray the scalp!
For most people, an SPF 30 product is plenty to protect them for many hours in the sun, and a more expensive product isn’t necessarily going to be better. Carry an extra, travel-sized backup tube in your backpack, dry bag, or camp supplies in case you lose or use all of your main supply, and apply throughout the day and after swimming to make sure your skin stays safe.
Many people assume that hot, clear skies are the only way to get sunburnt. In reality, the sun’s UV radiation is powerful enough to cause sunburns through overcast skies and in all temperatures. High altitudes and reflective snow pose extra risk, so make sure to plan ahead for these types of conditions.
In addition, UV radiation is strongest and most damaging when the sun is highest in the sky. Try to plan travel and activities during the morning and evening to avoid this time – and the dehydration that can come with midday heat in hot climates.
Cover it Up!
Finally, clothing choices can play a major role in preventing sunburns. Even the heftiest sunscreen can’t always protect pale shoulders out all day, so choose clothing that covers sensitive or highly-exposed areas. Lightweight, white, long-sleeve shirts are perfect for upper arms and shoulders, and hats and bandanas can protect sensitive scalps. And of course, consider wearing closed-toed shoes to protect the tops of your feet.
Tip #2: Keep it Clean!
Our next tips are for when prevention didn’t work out, and you find yourself with a mild- to moderate sunburn. While great for most, these tricks may not be enough for more severe burns, which may need care from a healthcare professional. If you’re not sure whether or not your sunburn is severe, play it safe and talk to a doctor.
Skin is a defense. It protects us from infections, keeps fluids and nutrients in, and helps create important vitamins. When we damage our skin, we damage that defense – and leave the rest of our body open to attack from infection and loss of essential water. In fact, one of the most dangerous aspects of all burns is the possibility of infection from damaged tissues.
When we get sunburnt, we cause short-term and long-term damage to the skin – and when it blisters or peels, it leaves us vulnerable to secondary infections. A minor sunburn can become a serious, scarring condition with the right bacteria – but it doesn’t have to be! You can help prevent secondary infections, as well as some scarring, by keeping your burn clean.
To clean a non-blistered sunburn, wash your skin with soapy, warm water once or twice a day and cover it whenever possible with clean clothes. Only use unscented lotions or ointments that come from a clean container.
In the case of a sunburn that has minor blisters, make sure to keep them especially free from dirt, debris, and any unclean water. Wash them gently with clean, soapy water, and don’t drain them. Blisters will drain on their own, and opening them can make you more susceptible to infections and scarring.
This is especially important out in the backcountry, where there is limited clean water, lots of dirt, and not a lot of clean clothes or bandages. Always carry some small blister or burn pads to cover blisters until you can get to a clean environment, and sterilize water through boiling before using it to clean any wounds.
Tip #3: Stay Hydrated!
Our third tip is a great way to take care of not only sunburns, but the other issues that can come along with them.
The Importance of Hydration
Dehydration is one of the biggest causes of trouble for hikers, and it doesn’t just affect the inexperienced. Contaminated water can lead to illness that spirals into dehydration, high heat and sun exposure can drain the body of sweat, and even simple misjudgment of how much you need to drink can lead to a seriously bad time.
We all know that severe dehydration can mean serious trouble – and that it’s life-threatening. However, milder forms can be dangerous, too. While mild dehydration usually shows up as little more than feeling parched or a minor headache, it can actually lead to much bigger issues. People who are dehydrated are more susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, as well as hypothermia, and even minor dehydration can cause grogginess and confusion that can lead to devastating mistakes on the trail.
Hydration and Sunburns
So, water is important – we get it. But why does it matter for sunburns? For starters, keeping the skin hydrated can ease pain and prevent flaking, peeling, and scarring. Apply unscented lotion, oatmeal, or aloe vera to the skin to keep it moist and sooth some of the pain that comes with mild burns (but avoid blisters).
As well as hydrating your skin, you want to hydrate your whole body. Drinking plenty of fluids will help to prevent post-burn dehydration, keep your skin cells happy, and help your body overcome any heat exhaustion you might be experiencing.
Make sure to balance your water intake with enough electrolytes to keep your body healthy – sports drinks, salty snacks, and electrolyte mixes are perfect to make sure your cells stay in balance.
Tip #4: Avoid Further Damage
We know that sunburns cause permanent damage to the DNA in our cells – and we know that it’s important to prevent sunburns for this reason alone. But there’s another big reason why avoiding sun exposure after a burn is important.
When your skin is already inflamed from a burn, it’s more sensitive to future burns. That means that a small sunburn one day can turn into a nasty one the next, even if you got the same amount of sunshine. When sunburns stack up they can hurt a lot more, cause a lot more long-term damage, and cause scarring and permanent changes in your skin’s appearance.
On top of protecting the burn you already have, make sure to cover up other areas of the skin as well. All too often we get so wrapped up covering one area (like our shoulders and neck) that we forget other parts of our body that are exposed as well! Don’t let one burn turn into multiple.
Tip #5: Wait it Out
Our final tip is kind of, well, a bummer. Ultimately, sun burns are a common (although completely preventable) condition that’s usually mild, causing manageable pain for a few days and a lobster-like appearance. The best tool you can use to treat these mild cases is time – they almost always go away on their own without complication.
So, grab a big glass of water, settle into the couch, and spend some time out of the sun while your body recovers. It may not sound like much fun, but a few days of resting and staying in the shade is by far the oldest (and cheapest) remedy.
However, if your burn is severe (or you think it might be), don’t wait to check in with a healthcare professional. Infections often don’t heal on their own and need professional care, so if you have any signs of a complication, make sure to get it checked out.
These 5 tips are some of the simplest, but best, ways to treat sunburns – and with them, you’ll be able to get back outside in no time!
A Final Note: When to Go to the Doctor
We’ve gone over five different tips to help take care of the mild, pesky sunburns that seem to litter summer fun everywhere. However, we want to make an extra note about the more severe side of things – and when these steps might not be enough.
Severe sunburns can pose some big risks to your health, as can severe dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and infections. If you or a sunburnt friend experience any severe symptoms (like large blisters, fever, confusion, or unconsciousness), that’s a signal to get professional help – quick.
For the less obvious cases, always talk to a healthcare professional if you’re unsure about your symptoms or worried. And of course, consult with your doctor before trying to treat things on your own.
Summing Things Up
In this article, we’ve gone over the ins and outs of sunburns. We started with a little bit of science behind them, like what causes them and how they are similar to and different from surface burns. We gave you five tips to take care of burns both before they happen and after the fact, like prevention with sunscreen, good hydration, and keeping your burn clean.
Remember, sunburns are preventable, and the damage they cause is life-long – stay sun safe next time you have some outdoor fun. What are your favorite sunburn remedies? Let us know in the comments!
This content is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of any medical condition.