Everybody knows what sunburn is: it's a pain in the neck. But
there's more to sunburn than meets the eye.
Sunburn is literally a flesh burn caused by the ultraviolet radiation
of the sun. A sunburn is characterized by redness and is followed
by pain, the severity depending on the duration and intensity of
exposure. The condition occurs when the ultraviolet radiation one
is exposed to exceeds the protective capacity of melanin in the
With the exception of albinism, the human body has a limited natural
protectant against ultraviolet radiation called melanin. (Albinism
is a condition where the body has little or no melanin.) Melanin
is a pigment produced in our cells. It determines our hair color,
eye color, and skin color. It's this pigment that is designed to
protect the skin by tanning it as a result of UV radiation. One
produces a certain amount of melanin and that's all one gets-it's
not a vitamin or mineral that can be supplemented. How much melanin
one has can be generalized by skin-type. In general, the darker
the skin the more melanin it contains, which makes it harder to
At best, one can depend on a base-tan (or melanin) for protection
up to 4 SPF. Although this natural sun protection helps, it is wholly
inadequate for any type of responsible protection against sunburn.
If you say "I see I am turning pink, I had better cover up" Beware!
you are too late. You have already started a sunburn. Sunburns are
sneaky because they continue to develop even after you apply sunscreen
or get out of the sun. Sunburn pain is typically at its worse 6
to 48 hours after exposure and is sometimes followed by the flaking
off of dead skin cells. This itchy, unsightly process is appropriately
referred to as peeling and can continue for weeks.
Although sometimes a sunburn seems to disappear or to be converted
into a tan, the damaging effects of this process remain etched at
the cellular level. UV radiation can cause DNA damage that can be
passed onto subsequent generations of a cell's progeny. In other
words, the damage is permanent-and not only permanent, but cumulative.
Collected over a lifetime, skin damage can become skin cancer.
The three most common forms of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma,
squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
The good news is this: nobody is helpless against sunburn and skin
cancer. Our chances hinge directly on our "personal history" with
the sun. Research has found that the sun is responsible for over
90% of all skin cancers and the symptoms of premature aging ...
and, certainly it is responsible for every case of sunburn. But
the sun is only responsible passively. In reality, each one of us
is directly accountable for the fate our skin today, tomorrow, and
ten years from now. Be responsible. Be proactive: wear sunscreen, sun protective clothing, limit your time
in the direct sun and, whenever possible, plan outdoor activities
when the UV Index is low.
Note: UVB is the primary radiation responsible for sunburns. It
is the most intense between the hours of 10:00 am and 2:00 pm. It
is also more intense in the summer months.
What if you are the "unlucky" recipient
of a sunburn ?(1):
Infants - According to the American Academy of Pediatrics if your baby gets a sunburn and is under 1 year of age, contact your pediatrician at once - a severe sunburn is an emergency. For babies over the age of 1 year, tell your pediatrician if there is blistering, pain or fever.
Children and Adults - There is no quick cure for minor sunburn. Symptomatic treatment
can be initiated with aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to relieve
pain and headache and reduce fever. (Children and teenagers should
generally not be given aspirin because of the danger of Reye syndrome.)
Drinking plenty of water helps to replace fluid losses. Cool baths
or the gentle application of cool wet cloths on the burned area
may also provide some comfort. You should avoid further exposure
until the burn has resolved. Additional symptomatic relief can be
achieved through the application of a topical moisturizing cream,
aloe, or 1% hydrocortisone cream. A low-dose (0.5%-1%) hydrocortisone
cream, which is sold over the counter, can be helpful in reducing
the burning sensation and swelling and speeding up healing (2).
If blistering occurs, lightly bandage or cover the area with gauze
to prevent infection. The blisters should not be broken, as this
will slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection.
When the blisters break and the skin peels, dried fragments may
be removed and an antiseptic ointment or hydrocortisone cream may
Indications for medical attention include severe sunburns covering
more than 15% of the body, dehydration, high fever (>101 F), or
extreme pain that persists for longer than 48 hours.
1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, wwn.cdc.gov/travel/yellowBookCh6-Sunburn.aspx
2. Duteil L, Queille-Roussel C, Lorenz B, Thieroff-Ekerdt R, Ortonne
JP. A randomized, controlled study of the safety and efficacy of
topical corticosteroid treatments of sunburn in healthy volunteers.
Clin Exp Dermatol. 2002;27:314-8.
This material is provided for information only.
It is not a substitute for your doctor or health care provider.
If you have any health questions or concerns you should see your
doctor or health care provider.