What Is A Sunburn? How Serious Is Skin Damage From The Sun?

Seeing red. | Source: Shutterstock

Seeing red. | Source: Shutterstock

I only remember experiencing a sunburn once and it was a peeling, disgusting mess. But friends of mine have suffered far more serious skin reactions than dead skin along the nose. Most of them look like lobsters, wincing in pain and hoping that their burn will eventually fade into a tan–that’s rarely the case, however.

So what exactly is a sunburn other than something awful that we get after staying out in the sun for too long without enough sunscreen? A sunburn is actually a first-degree burn of the outermost layer of the caused by overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

Most of you are probably familiar with the symptoms of a sunburn: Pinkness and redness of the skin, skin that is warm to the touch and general pain and skin tenderness. Some even develop small, fluid-filled blisters and develop headaches, fever or fatigue if the sunburn is widespread. While your sunburn might sprout up mere hours after overexposure, it might take up to a full 24 hours for it to appear. So don’t assume that you’re out of the woodwork yet just because you laid out in the sun for a few hours and aren’t immediately red and blotchy. If you start feeling nauseous or dizzy or your skin begins to swell or fill with a yellowish pus, it’s time to get some medical help: You might be suffering from sun poisoning.

People with lighter skin are more susceptible to sunburn, which is probably why I’ve only been sunburned once.

You can get a sunburn anywhere. Seriously, anywhere. Your scalp, earlobes, the bit of skin between your toes…even your eyes can be burned, leaving them feeling gritty and irritated.

Eventually, the dead, burned skin will peel off and you’ll feel very reptilian for a few days, but just because it eventually goes away does not mean that it isn’t anything to worry about.

Frequent overexposure to the sun, especially without sunscreen, results in photoaging, skin changes caused by the sun. These changes generally age the skin, making us look older than we really are. This can result in weakening the skin’s connective tissue which reduces the skin’s elasticity and firmness, thinner skin, deep wrinkles, and dry, rough skin. Yikes!

But as much as none of us want to look older than we are, vanity is pretty low priority compared to a little something called skin cancer. The sun’s radiation is strong enough to mess with the DNA of our skin cells, resulting in mutations and abnormalities. Skin cancer usually develops in areas of the skin that receive the most skin exposure, like our arms, legs, neck and chest. Some skin cancers start off as a harmless looking mole before it starts developing signs of being cancerous. Others appear as bleeding sores or large black spots that enlarge over time. If you notice any of this happening, see a doctor ASAP. Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, is nothing to mess around with. Even though those with lighter complexions are more likely to develop skin cancer, those of us with darker skin tones are also susceptible. Musician Bob Marley died of melanoma when he was only 36-years-old, so don’t go around thinking that your extra melanin is all you need to fight off skin cancer!

While you can’t reverse the skin damage your sunburn leaves behind, you can definitely soothe it. be soothed by applying a cold compress to the skin or chillin’–literally–in a cold bath. You can also apply topical creams or gels containing aloe, menthol or camphor. Also, make sure to drink plenty of water and take anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofin (Motrin, Advil, etc).

To prevent sunburns, make sure that you’re wearing sunscreen of at least SPF 30! Apply it 30 minutes before you go outside, even on overcast days. Wear big hats and cover up as much skin as you possibly can. And if you can, avoid the sun between the hours of 10am and 4pm when the sun’s rays are the strongest.

Definitely have fun in the sun, but a few protective measures can mean the difference between time spent relaxing and time spent picking your skin. Which sounds most appealing to you?

Do you burn really easily? What do you do to ease your burns? What’s the worst sunburn you’ve ever had? Tell us in the comments!


Everything You Knew About Your Sunscreen Is A Lie

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  • Gicelle

    It is so hard to sunscreen all the time when you live in Hawaii.