An introduction to sunburn
Sunburn is a common summertime complaint and is not usually considered to be a serious skin condition, as most episodes clear up after a few days.
However, if your exposure to the sun is prolonged and outbreaks of sunburn are more recurring, it can increase your likelihood of developing more serious conditions like Bowen’s disease or even skin cancer.
Sunburn occurs when the skin becomes damaged after prolonged exposure to UV light. There are two specific types of UV radiation responsible for skin damage – UVA and UVB. UVA is the worst offender as it can penetrate the epidermis and damage the secondary layer of skin underneath, the dermis. UVB light tends to attack the surface of the skin and can be responsible for photoaging.
However, UV radiation can be beneficial in small measures, increasing your supply of vitamin D. It is only when we are exposed more persistently that it can harm the epidermis, killing healthy skin cells and even causing your melanocytes to mutate.
It is important therefore, to be aware of the causes of sunburn and how you can protect yourself against this potentially lethal complaint.
The causes of sunburn
Despite the relatively cloud climate, sunburn is a normal occurrence in the UK, whether you’re venturing abroad or enjoying up a brief week of British sunshine.
We are so unaccustomed to sunny, hot weather that our immediate instinct, whenever we see the sun, is to try and soak up as much vitamin D as humanely possible.
This however, can be extremely detrimental when you consider the negative effects that UV radiation can have on your skin.
- UV light: Prolonged exposure to UV light is the primary cause of sunburn. This is because UV light can damage the skin by reducing the volume of natural, lubricating oils such as sebum, consequently drying out your epidermis and killing the healthy skin cells. This type of radiation can also cause your skin to age prematurely, known as photoaging, and can even stimulate the melanoma cells into becoming malignant. Melanoma derives from melanocytes, the cells in your skin that produce melanin, a dark pigment that gives human skin its colour and protects it from UV light. Consistent exposure to UV light, whether by sun bathing or tanning beds, can cause these cells to become malignant, and even cancerous
- Weak immune system: If your immune system is weakened, either due to medication or a pre-existing health condition, you can become more susceptible to sunburn. This is because your immune system is the body’s first line of defence – it is responsible for nourishing your skin cells, strengthening your epidermis, and protecting your skin from UV radiation. When the immune system is weakened, there is research to suggest that UV light can alter its response to pathogens1 and even kill immune cells on the skin’s surface. The immune cells in question are called Langerhans and often contribute towards the immune system’s response to potential infections and irritants.2 Therefore, if your immune system is damaged by UV light, it can become more prone to other viruses and illnesses, including skin conditions like eczema or acne, which make skin more sensitive to burning and irritation
- Skin conditions: When you suffer from a degenerative skin condition that damages the epidermal layer of skin, it is likely that your skin is already sensitive and vulnerable to dryness and inflammation. In these instances exposure to UV radiation will only cause your pre-existing symptoms to worsen considerably. For example, in some types of eczema, your skin can become brittle and cracked as the epidermis already lacks essential oils like sebum, meaning that prolonged contact with sunlight will only cause further damage, reducing a finite source of healthy skin cells and possibly burning the sensitive layer of skin under the epidermis
- Skin type: The type of skin you have can influence how it reacts to UV light. Sunburn can affect all skin types, so it is important to remember to protect your skin regardless of how vulnerable it may or may not be, however certain types of skin may be more susceptible to sunburn than others. If you have extremely fair skin, for example, and red hair then you are more likely to burn after being exposed to sunlight. Research from the University of Bradford implies that this might not be due to the production of melanin as previously thought, but rather due to the melanocytes also releasing an inflammatory chemical known as prostaglandin-E2.3 The production of this chemical appears to exist in much higher quantities in those with fair skin as opposed to those with olive or darker skin, however further study in this area is still needed
- Environment: The environment that we inhabit can be a key factor in influencing how your skin reacts to sunlight. If you live in an environment that is constantly exposed to the sun throughout the year, then over time it is possible that your skin will become more accustomed to these conditions, whereas if you live somewhere like the UK, which is notorious for its wet summers and overcast weather conditions, it can make you more vulnerable to burning as your skin is not used to sun exposure and cannot respond adequately to UV radiation.
The symptoms of sunburn
The symptoms of sunburn are well known, with redness and inflammation often being associated with the condition. Nevertheless, it is still essential to identify why these symptoms appear and when you should seek medical attention if you find that your symptoms are progressing and worsening.
- Blistering: If you are suffering from a mild episode of sunburn, then it is possible that this symptom may bypass you entirely, however if your sunburn is more pronounced and intense, then blisters may bubble to the surface of the affected area. These fluid filled pustules can indicate that you have second degree burns so it is important that you do not scratch or irritate them, and that you resist squeezing them as this can damage your skin further, worsening your condition
- Inflammation: During an outburst of sunburn, our skin will become swollen and inflamed. This is because the skin cells in our epidermis have been impaired , causing our immune system to release inflammatory chemicals as a response to try and repair the damage
- Redness: Skin redness during sunburn is perhaps the most common symptom and is usually the first to appear. When your skin is burned, it becomes hot and inflamed, reddening in the affected area. This is because your immune system will cause the blood vessels to dilate so that nutrients can be carried to the burnt area more quickly, enabling the healing process
- Itchiness: When your skin is irritated and dry, it can often become uncomfortable and itchy, making it difficult to resist the urge to scratch the affected area. However, continual scratching will only damage the epidermis even further, making it more vulnerable to UV light and a secondary bacterial infection
- Peeling skin: Peeling skin is quite common during the latter stages of sunburn and occurs as the skin attempts to shed dead or damaged skin cells so that new, healthy skin cells can grow in their place. It might be tempting to scratch the affected area, but you should try to resist doing this to avoid further irritation
- Photoaging: Photoaging, or premature aging, is one of sunburn’s less visible symptoms. When UV radiation damages your skin, it can impair the collagen found in the secondary layer of skin, or dermis. This can result in skin losing its firmness and elasticity, and over time ageing prematurely with wrinkles and age spots appearing5
- Dehydration: A more severe symptom associated with sunburn, dehydration can occur externally when it causes your skin to become dry and brittle but it is more serious when it appears internally. If you don't drink enough water, you can become dizzy, unfocused, and suffer from a headache or nausea. Serious cases of dehydration can put you at risk of developing heat stroke. If you feel that you are extremely dehydrated then you may need to contact your doctor as soon as possible
- Fever: If your temperature starts to exceed 102 degrees, then you should consult your doctor immediately. It could be a sign that you are developing heat exhaustion which can lead into a more serious affliction such as heatstroke, where the body is unable to regulate its temperature.
There are a number of natural home solutions available to ease the uncomfortable symptoms of sunburn; however it is important to remember that these should always be used in conjunction with sun cream.
If you are interested in learning more about natural ways of taking care of your skin and avoiding sunburn then please check out our blog about the issue.
- Covering up: It might seem like a basic precaution, but it’s still amazing how many people ignore the health of their skin in favour of trying to get a tan. Covering up your skin with protective clothing might not seem like a fashionable option at the beach but even the simple addition of a cardigan or a sunhat can greatly reduce the risk of contracting sunburn and can guard your skin against irritation. It also worth noting that the UV light tends to be strongest between 10 am and 3pm, so it might be worth avoiding direct exposure to sunlight during this time
- Staying hydrated: Staying hydrated is extremely important, as prolonged exposure to the sun can result in dehydration, a condition that can cause dizziness, fever, headaches, nausea and even heat stroke. You should be drinking around 1.5-2 litres of water a day, excluding beverages like alcohol or caffeinated, fizzy drinks which do not count as a proper source of hydration
- Diet: Your diet can be an influential factor in how your skin reacts to UV light. There are fruits and vegetables that contain properties that can protect your skin from the sun and boost your immune system. Limes, for example, have been proved to reduce your chances of developing skin cancer by over 30%6 while carrots and other vegetables that contain carotenoids can ease the symptoms of sunburn.7 Read more on the benefits of Carrot Juice for sun burn in our blog. Then, eating plenty of foods with a rich content of omega 3 fatty acids can help to restore the oils found on the surface of your skin as well, so overall it is essential that you eat a well-balanced and healthy diet full of vital vitamins and minerals
- Cold compress: If your skin is hot or agitated, you could try applying a cold compress to cool down the skin and provide relief from other uncomfortable symptoms. Soak a cloth in icy water and allow it to sit on your skin for a few minutes. The coldness should cause your blood vessels to contract, reducing any inflammation and soothing any heat related symptoms
- Aloe vera: Aloe vera is renowned for being associated with the treatment of burns and it can be applied directly to the affected area. The plant oil works well as a natural anti-bacterial and anti-sceptic agent and it is also rich in fatty acids and beta-carotenes. Please check out Your Health Food Store for a great range of Aloe vera products
- Coconut oil: Coconut oil is excellent for skin complaints like sunburn, being rich in fatty acids and anti-oxidants. It can work to hydrate and soften skin, strengthening the epidermis and encouraging the growth of new, healthy skin cells. There is a fantastic range of coconut oil products available at Your Health Food Store, so please feel free to check them out.
- Honey: Raw, unprocessed honey might not seem like an attractive remedy for skin complaints, but it can be very useful when it comes to the treatment of sunburn. This is because honey contains anti-inflammatory properties and can work to reinforce the epidermis, locking in moisture and adding a protective film between your skin and the sun. Manuka honey is particularly good for skin and you can find Manuka honey products readily available at Your Health Food Store.
If you feel as though your skin could use an extra boost in addition to the sun creams you’ve been using, then you can always try some of our herbal skin remedies.
These treatments are particularly good as soothing dry skin and supporting the immune system, however if you notice that your sunburn symptoms are intensifying, you should try and speak to your doctor as soon as possible.
- Neem Cream: Neem is an extremely beneficial plant when it comes to the treatment of dry or irritated skin conditions and can be used to soothe itchiness or inflammation. Neem Cream contains extracts of neem leaves and can be applied topically to an affected area, however it may not be suitable for those who suffer from nut allergies or pregnant women
- Bioforce cream: Bioforce cream is composed of a blend of herbs and oil, including St John’s Wort oil, calendula and witch hazel. It can be used to ease minor burns and dry, cracked skin, making it firmer and more resistant against any potential damage. You can apply this remedy topically and it is a 100% vegetarian friendly
- Vitamin C: If your immune system is in need of a boost, you can always try a natural vitamin C supplement, like Nature-C. Nature-C can be taken to support the immune system and increase your intake of vitamin C, a vitamin that is vital for the formation of collagen, making it essential for good skin health.
Conventional medicines are usually the first option to consider when deciding how to treat and prevent sunburn. Sun screen is a must-have, and should be used in conjunction with all other treatments that you consider.
If you notice that your symptoms are worsening, you should speak to your doctor to avoid complications like sun exhaustion and heat stroke.
- Sun screen: Sun screen is the most popular method of protecting the skin against sunburn and it works by absorbing UV radiation before it can harm yours skin. However it must be applied regularly and in suitable quantities. A thin layer of cream is unlikely to protect you skin against UV radiation for long and it is also important that you consider the strength of the cream that you are applying. The Sun Protection Factor or SPF, might vary depending on your skin type. If you burn easily then a higher SPF will be required, usually around SPF 30 or even SPF 50. Try to make sure that your sun screen is protecting you against both UVA and UVB rays. If you are not sure about the harsh chemicals found in some sun screens, you could always try a natural alternative
- Emollients: If your skin becomes dry and dehydrated, then your doctor might recommend using emollients to hydrate your skin. These emollients should be water-based to avoid any further irritation and must be applied as directed in the instruction. However, some emollients may disagree with your skin – if this is the case then you must consult your doctor in order to determine what emollient will work best for your skin
- Ibuprofen: If your symptoms are causing you pain and discomfort, then it might be worth taking a painkiller like Ibuprofen. This drug can act as an anti-inflammatory agent, reducing swelling and any accompanying aches, whilst working generally to reduce sunburn symptoms.