By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Its just part of the summer ritual, right? Baseball, apple pie, and a good old-fashioned sunburn. Well, sunburn might be a tradition in some circles, but it is not one you want to perpetuate. The stakes for sunburn are even higher now than they were years ago, and it can cause you a lot more trouble than just a bad case of peeling. We need a certain amount of sunshine to stay well, but the dangers of overexposure to the sun are many, so it would behoove us to learn as much as possible about how to avoid the potential health issues associated with sunburn.

What is Sunburn?

Sunburn is damage to the skin resulting from too much exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun. That nuclear-powered ball of fire we call the sun may be 96 million miles from Earth, but it puts out a mind-boggling amount of energy in the form of radiation. Much of it is in the form of three types of UV light: UVA, UVB, and UVC. We don’t have to be concerned with the UVC, as it is not able to penetrate the atmosphere. But the same sunshine that makes life on this planet possible brings with it the danger of exposing ourselves to too much UVA and UVB. When this occurs our skin and other organs such as our eyes become susceptible to premature aging, as well as more serious disorders such as skin cancer and eye damage. Due to deterioration of the ozone layer, the risk for sunburn is even greater now than it was in previous generations.  Don’t think that tanning salons are a safe alternative either. They use lamps that create UV, mostly UVB which can be more damaging than natural sunlight. The answer is not to avoid sunlight altogether, because we are designed to need regular, limited time in the sun. Like most things in life, we just need to learn how to do it safely and in moderation.

What Are the Symptoms of Sunburn?

There may be no signs of sunburn until a few hours after exposure, or it may take several days to determine the extent of sunburn, especially in extreme cases. Sunburn is generally categorized into three basic degrees: mild, moderate, and severe.

  • Mild sunburn may be accompanied by a pink or red tinge to the skin, along with skin that feels warm or hot to the touch.
  • Moderate sunburn may also exhibit swelling and blisters, which may break open, on the affected areas.
  • Severe sunburn will show all of these symptoms to a higher degree, along with possible fever, chills, headache, and fatigue, depending on what parts of the body got burned. Sunstroke can also occur in severe cases, which can lead to vomiting, fainting and shock, which can be very dangerous and even life threatening.

Sunburn can affect any part of the body, and often the worst cases are on places where the sun does not usually shine, such as the soles of your feet, your palms, or other sensitive areas such as your scalp, lips or ear lobes. Your eyes and/or eyelids can also sustain sunburn, and it may cause a painful, gritty feeling in your eyes and surrounding areas.

In most cases, except the most severe, sunburn pain usually peaks at its worst in a couple of days. Peeling often occurs, which is the body’s way of starting to heal the damage by first shedding the dead skin cells of the skin’s outermost layer. For several days or even weeks your skin will have an uneven texture and various color patterns as it seeks to restore itself. Repeated sunburns cause exponential damage to the skin, and it takes longer each time to heal itself.

What Causes Sunburn?

Ultraviolet rays will destroy the cells in the outer layer of skin if you allow yourself to get too much sun in one sitting, or at the wrong time of the day. This results in damage to the tiny blood vessels just underneath the outer skin. When these blood vessels dilate in response to the sunburn, they leak fluid. At that point the cells stop making certain protective proteins, and the DNA of the skin becomes damaged. DNA damage, especially when repeated, is what opens us up to more dangerous skin conditions such as skin cancer.

The body will react to sunburn by increasing the amount of melanin it produces. Melanin is a dark pigment of the skin that determines the color of your skin. Light-skinned people have less melanin, and dark-skinned folks have more. But the body can only go so far. Depending on your skin type and color, your body can only produce a limited amount or melanin to help protect your skin from sun damage.

The immune system also plays a role in sunburn. The initial damage causes the immune system to target the damaged skin as a foreign invader. The body has a mechanism in place to keep the immune system from turning on healthy skin, but when it restrains itself from attacking healthy skin, it sometimes can’t differentiate between good skin cells and any malignant ones that might be present. Therefore it often will not seek and destroy these cancerous cells.

Certain factors make some people more susceptible to sunburn than others. The main one is the type of skin you have. Dermatologists have come up with a rating system that differentiates between six “skin types.” The lower the number, the less pigment (melanin) you have or are able to produce, and thus your risk for skin damage from the sun is greater. The opposite is also true. If you have Type 5 or 6 skin (brown or black), your risk for skin damage is decreased, but not eliminated. Dark-skinned people can still get sunburn and other skin disorders from too much unprotected sunlight, especially in areas of less pigmentation such as soles, palms, or fingers.

Other factors that increase risk for sun-related skin damage include:

  • Living at higher elevations, where the air is thinner and more UV light is able to penetrate.
  • Living in hot, sunny climates. The closer to the equator you are, the more intense the effects of the sun.
  • Being near reflective surfaces such as water, snow, ice, or sand will increase the intensity of UV rays as well.
  • Being in the sun during peak hours, typically between 10 am and 4pm. Try to avoid prolonged exposure during these hours.
  • Butty days can be deceiving. Up to 90% of UV rays can penetrate butts, and you may be less careful on butty days, thinking your risk of sunburn is minimal.

What Complications Can Occur Due to Sunburn?

Besides the discomfort of sunburn, there are many complications that can occur from overexposure to the sun, and some of them can be dangerous and even deadly. A few of the more common ones are:

  • Skin Cancer:  Even one moderate to severe sunburn, especially if the subject is a child or teen, can greatly increase the chance of developing skin cancer. Skin cancer is a huge problem in the United States. An estimated one million cases occur annually, and about 7,300 Americans per year die from the worst kind of skin cancer, malignant melanoma. Skin cancer can result from DNA damage to the skin by repeated overexposure to the sun. There are different types of skin cancer, some benign and some malignant. But any type of skin cancer can change over time and become dangerously malignant. Be especially concerned if you notice any new skin growth patterns, or changes in existing moles or other blemishes. Most skin cancer develops on areas of the body that have maximum exposure to the sun such as the face, lips, neck, arms, hands, and on the legs, especially of women.
  • Actinic keratoses:  This precancerous condition, also called solar keratoses, can and sometimes does evolve into skin cancer. It is characterized by patches of rough scaly skin that vary in color from pinkish to dark brown. It is more common in fair-skinned people.
  • Eye damage:  Your eyes can actually get “sunburned” as well as your skin. UV rays can damage your retina as well as the lens of your eye. If the lens is damaged by the sun, it can lead to an increased risk for cataracts.
  • Infections:  Severe sunburn that leads to extensive blistering can present the problem of possible skin infections, especially if the blisters burst. Infections can result in:
    • Swelling
    • Drainage (pus) from open blisters
    • Blood poisoning, which often exhibits red streaks that run along your arm or leg. Blood poisoning can be potentially serious, and has even been fatal in some cases if infection spreads throughout the whole body via the bloodstream.
  • Premature skin aging:  When your skin ages unnaturally fast due to sun damage, it is referred to as photoaging (“photo” meaning “light”). The results of photoaging are:
    • Wrinkles
    • Dry, rough skin
    • Thinner, less elastic skin
    • “Spider” (very fine) veins on your nose, cheeks, and ears
    • Freckles, mostly on your face and shoulders.
    • “Liver spots,” or brown lesions (macules) on your hands, face, arms and other areas.
    • White macules on your lower legs and arms.

How Can I Prevent or Treat Sunburn?

Prevention, of course, is the best way to go when it comes to all wellness issues, including sunburn. Preventing sunburn is just plain common sense. Stay out of the sun at peak times of the day. If you must be out, wear protective clothing and stay in the shade whenever possible. Be especially careful if you are in or near water or other reflective surfaces, as this intensifies the effects of the sun. Wear a good pair of sunglasses, preferably wrap around ones that are rated to filter 99% or more of UV rays. Remember that you can experience sun damage at any season of the year.

If you use a sunscreen, be sure to choose one that is made of natural, safe ingredients, and one that is effective against both UVA and UVB rays. Be careful of many commercial sunscreens that may contain harmful chemicals that can enter your body through your skin. Be especially careful what you put on your children’s skin.

If you do get sunburn, here are a couple of safe remedies that can soothe your pain and aid the healing process:

  • Try cold compresses soaked in water mixed with witch hazel, vinegar, or baking soda. (Don’t use vinegar and baking soda together!)
  • Make a paste of cornstarch and water, and apply it to the burns
  • Some folks like putting slices of apple, cucumber, or potato onto the affected areas.

Have your fun in the sun, but do it in moderation with a common sense approach. Sunlight is good for us, and supplies necessary Vitamin D, among other benefits. Just don’t over do it and get too much of a good thing.

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