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Sunburn Treatment, Prevention and Dangers

May 30, 2014
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If you got a nasty sunburn recently, here are some treatment options, as well as tips to prevent future burns and a warning about the dangers of catching too many rays.

Sunburn treatment

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends these five steps to treat a sunburn:

1.   Don’t wait to treat. A sunburn can take some time to develop, so you should get out of the sun and follow steps 2-5 as soon as possible if you feel a sunburn coming on.

2.   Moisturize and repeat. Use a cream or lotion to soothe your burn, and to help prevent peeling. You’ve probably heard that aloe vera is a good treatment for sunburn, and although initial research has shown only that aloe may help heal burns, at the very least, it will soothe the burn’s heat and pain.

3.   Drink lots of water. One side effect of a sunburn is that the fluid in your body is drawn to the surface, to your skin. To make sure you don’t get dehydrated, drink plenty of water.

4.   Take an anti-inflammatory. Ibuprofen can help to reduce swelling and redness if taken as soon as you feel the burn coming on.

5.   Seek medical help if necessary. If you’re experiencing bad blistering, fever or chills, seek the help of a medical professional.

Sunburn prevention

The best way to avoid a sunburn is to stay out of the sun — but this isn’t realistic in many cases. If you’re in the sun, be sure to cover any exposed skin with the correct sunscreen to protect yourself from a burn.

SPF basics

While slathering on your white cream is good, it’s also helpful to understand what sunscreen does, and what SPF means. The ingredients in sunscreen help to block ultraviolet rays — UVA and UVB rays in particular. Different sunscreens vary in terms of how well they protect against UVA and UVB rays.

SPF, which is Sun Protection Factor, measures a sunscreen’s effectiveness in filtering out UVB rays. SPF is a guide to help you determine how long you can be in the sun without burning if you are wearing sunscreen as opposed to if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. For example, if it takes 15 minutes for you to burn without sunscreen, a SPF 30 sunscreen will theoretically protect you for 7.5 hours (15 minutes x SPF 30).

You can also think about SPF as a measure of the percent of UVB rays filtered out by the sunscreen. About 93% of rays are filtered out by SPF 15, while 97% of UVB is filtered by SPF 30 and 98% with SPF 50. Current recommendations say that SPF above 30 isn’t necessary. Keep in mind, however, that SPF doesn’t account for the ability to filter out UVA rays, which are also responsible for skin cancer. Be sure to buy a broad-spectrum sunscreen, since this protects against UVA and UVB rays.

Protect yourself

While there’s no way to fully protect yourself from the sun and its effects, you can still take these precautions:

  • Apply sunscreen 30 minutes to 2 hours before sun exposure. Then, reapply every two hours, or if you are in the water or sweating heavily, reapply every 80 minutes.
  • Wear sunglasses.
  • Throw on a shirt or cover-up.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Seek shade instead of direct sunlight during the peak hours, generally from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., of UV radiation.

Sunburn dangers

According the Environmental Protection Agency, more cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined, and 1 in 5 Americans will develop the disease in their lifetime. Of particular concern, children or adolescents with just one blistering sunburn have more than double the chance of developing melanoma. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a person with just five sunburns has twice the risk of developing melanoma.

There is a direct correlation between non-melanoma skin cancers (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) and sun exposure over the years. Melanoma, on the other hand, is believed to be the result of intense exposure, such as one blistering burn. Since melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer — the National Cancer Institute estimated 9,710 deaths from melanoma in 2014 — avoiding sunburns is key to your health and safety.