Sunburn is a highly common skin condition that is usually easy to treat. However, if not treated right away, it can worsen, cause severe itching, pain, discomfort and can also mark the skin.

In some cases, it may even result in complications. This article will address what it is, the causes, its symptoms, and how it can be treated and prevented.

What is it?

Sunburn refers to the skin damage caused by harmful UV rays from the sun. It is already common knowledge that radiation can be dangerous.

However, some people still willingly expose, if not overexpose, themselves to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays regularly for cosmetic purposes.

Radiation is known to stimulate cancer, and the vast number of people who go sunbathing has been connected to the significant climb of skin cancer cases and actinic or solar keratosis.

Overexposure to the sun is directly linked to all kinds of skin cancer, especially non-melanoma skin cancer. Exposure to the sun during childhood also plays a huge role.

Most people experience the most sun exposure during an early period in life As a matter of fact, sunburn acquired during childhood heightens the risk of developing skin cancer in the long run.

Sunburn and overexposure to the sun also cause premature aging which can lead to wrinkles. Most of the wrinkles and hyperpigmentation you see in older people resulted from successive sun exposure.

Sunburn wouldn’t have been a frightening condition if skin cancer didn’t exist, or if it wasn’t directly linked to sunburn.

As it is, all forms of damage from sun exposure such as sunburn or even just a tan heighten the chances of developing skin cancer.


What causes it?

The sun radiates large amounts of energy in wavelengths. The light that we see is just a tiny fraction of the overall energy that the sun releases.

Electromagnetic radiation between the wavelength of 400 and 700 nm (nanometers), or what we’d like to refer to as “visible light,” is the only radiation our naked eyes can ever distinguish.

Shorter wavelength means higher frequency and vice versa. Long wavelengths that are not visible to the naked eyes emit low frequencies.

This means they impose lower damage and radiation than those of shorter wavelengths. For example, radio waves are long in wavelength and low in frequency, and radio waves are said to be harmless.

Majority of the energy that the sun emits is short in wavelengths, which means the radiation is powerful and damaging. Most of this radiation comes in the form of UV light.

There are 3 degrees of Ultraviolet (UV): UVA, UVB, and UVC.

UVC contains the most energy, but the shortest wavelength. However, it is blocked by the ozone and does not even reach the surface of the Earth. UVA, on the other hand, contains the least energy and the longest wavelength.

UVA is the most powerful amongst the 3 degrees.

UVB is between UVC and UVA in both energy and wavelength. 95% of the UV light that reaches the surface of the earth is UVA.

Since UVA has little energy due to longer wavelength, it will not burn the skin as much as UVB would. But in spite of that, it still contributes to most sunburns since the earth has a vast quantity of it.

UVA also pierces deeper into our skin than UVB. Albeit being less powerful than UVB, exposure to UVA is believed to be more pertinent to premature aging and potentially skin cancer.

What are its symptoms?

Sunburn symptoms depend on the severity of the sunburn. The following are the different degrees of sunburn:

  • First degree: the skin is experiencing redness and tenderness
  • Second degree: the skin is blistering and may be itchy
  • Third degree: the skin is experiencing severe discoloration and blistering, accompanied by fever, dehydration, weakness, and nausea

Sunburn is most evident after 5-6 hours of sunning, reaching peak redness after 12-24 hours.


How is it treated?

The following tips can aid in minimizing pain and tenderness from sunburn:

  • Oatmeal bath: This is ideal for people who got their whole bodies sunburned. The oatmeal has soothing properties that can help relieve pain and reduce swelling. There are oatmeal bath products available in drugstores. You can also go for a DIY oatmeal soak. To do that, grind 1 cup of instant oatmeal using a blender, spread the ground oatmeal in a tub of cold water and let it soak for a few minutes before dipping in.
  • Cold water or cold compress: Soak the sunburned area in cold water (not ice water) or apply a cold compress on the affected area for about 15-20 minutes. This method can take the heat away from the skin and reduce swelling.
  • Cornstarch: Scatter some cornstarch powder on the bed sheet to help minimize or prevent chafing.
  • Pain relievers: If the sunburn causes pain and distress, then it is best to take a pain reliever. There are different painkillers that can be easily bought over the counter such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and acetaminophen.
  • Cooling lotions: Cooling lotions that contain aloe-vera or calamine can help soothe sunburn pain and reduce redness.
  • Avoid greasy lotions: Oily and greasy lotions can seal in the heat and worsen the pain.

How can it be prevented?

The best way to prevent sunburn is to entirely avoid sun exposure for too long and protect your skin by using sunscreen regularly.

The following are some recommendations provided by experts and professionals that aid in preventing sunburn:

  • Make sure to always avoid the sun between 11 AM and 4 PM. The sun’s UV rays are most extreme during those hours. A good way to measure the intensity of the sun’s rays is by looking at your shadow while walking under the sun; if your shadow is shorter than you then the rays are intense.
  • Always wear sunblock. It is best to wear sunblocks with SPF 15 (or preferably higher) whenever going outdoors. Re-apply at least every 2 hours.
  • Wear protective clothing. Hats and caps can also help protect some parts of the body from the sun.
  • Never get complacent during winter. Even if it’s cold, UV lights still pierce through the snow. Always wear sunblock even if it’s winter.

Sunburn is relatively easy to treat. If you have sunburn, just follow the treatment options discussed above.

If you want to learn more about skin condition and how to treat them, check the articles linked below.

The commonly asked questions about facial pigmentation

Bid freckles goodbye with these natural remedies

An overview of polymorphous light eruptions


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