Last week, we talked about some of the dangers of spending time in the sun–specifically, dehydration and hyponatremia. In this post, we’ll focus on more direct ways the summer heat can deal some damage. Take an extra sip of water, just in case, and read on!

A silent threat

Did you know that your skin is your largest organ? Strange, but true. It’s one that we, unfortunately, tend to take for granted. But while we forget about it, our skin is busy protecting us from harmful microorganisms, regulating our body temperature, and allowing us to feel whether objects are safe to touch. It does all this very quietly, which makes it so much easier to forget, and results in our #1 threat to summer fun.

We’ve named “sunburn” #1 not because it is the necessarily the most dangerous of the heat-related conditions we’ll discuss in this series, but because it is by far the most common. Although huge advances have been made in sun protection over the last century, people still get sunburned all the time! Why?

What is sunburn?

Sunburns are inflammation in response to radiation burns. We’re going to repeat that for the sake of those who think sunburn isn’t a big deal: sunburns are radiation burns. When we get sunburned, it isn’t because the sun is “hot”–it’s possible to burn on a cold or even cloudy day. Sunburns happen because UV radiation emitted by the sun damages our skin.

The Skin Cancer Foundation points out that the damage from sunburn (and tanning) is long-lasting, even though our bodies try to protect us from it. Sunburns peel to try to rid your body of damaged cells, but this certainly isn’t foolproof.

What are the risks of sunburn?

There’s a famous photograph of a trucker whose left side looks dramatically older after 28 years on the road. It’s excellent visual evidence of what UV radiation can do in terms of damage. This driver may not even have ever been burned, but years without UV protection prematurely aged his skin on the side that was most exposed. Wrinkles are a definite risk of sunburn, but by far the least important.

We found a summary of a research experiment on sunburn cells. In the study, the cells were given, essentially, a lethal dose of UV radiation–“lethal” meaning that it damaged cell DNA beyond repair. At this point, the cell had no good options left. A cell that self-destructed too early could ruin the skin’s ability to regulate itself; too late, and malignant, cancerous cells could start developing. This study also showed that chronic UV stress made it much more likely for malignancies to develop, so please keep that in mind while enjoying the summer sun. Skin cancer is a prevalent health problem in many different countries: while researching for this blog, we found health advisories about sun protection from all over the world. Each sunburn you get increases your risk for developing cancer just a little more. It’s not worth the gamble.

How do I prevent sunburn?

You probably already know that you need to wear at least SPF 30 any time you will be exposed to UV rays for 15 minutes or longer. You probably already also know that you’re supposed to reapply…but are you really paying attention to those directions?

The first common sunburn mistake is that people slather on sunscreen before going outside, which is great, but they don’t wait 20 minutes before exposure. People, understandably, get impatient to go out and have a good time, but the little sentence on the bottle asking users to apply before they hit the trail (or the beach, or wherever), isn’t there for no reason. Sunscreen needs time to absorb into the skin, and on a hot summer day, if you don’t give it a chance to do so it will either wash right off in the water or slip off with your sweat. Take your time and apply well before you’re outside and sweating. Let it do its job. While we’re on that subject, too, did you know you might be applying your sunscreen wrong? Not using enough could mean you’re not actually getting the SPF advertised on the bottle! The above link directs to a dermatologist who has great information about properly applying sunscreen.

Another problem people run into, of course, is re-application, and this is where getting sunburned becomes really likely. It is all too easy to lose track of time while having fun, so without the aid of a timer more than a few unlucky individuals went to reapply after “just another half hour” only to find themselves already burnt. We’d like to note that this seems most common with activities involving water. During hikes, or other land-based activities, you can feel the heat of the sun on your skin and start to sense when you might need to reapply. At the lake or ocean, the water keeps your skin cool even if it is slowly beginning to fry; even the most conscientious sunscreen user won’t notice until it’s too late. If you are planning a water day, set a timer, or ask someone on shore to help you monitor your time. Make a habit of reapplying every time you get out of the water.

Treating sunburn

The Skin Cancer Foundation instructions include keeping the burn area cool (without putting ice directly on the skin!) and moisturized while the skin is damp (avoiding harsh soaps and oil or petroleum-based lotions, which can trap heat). Aloe vera is gentle and may be applied liberally, although several other sources suggest avoiding any sun product with “caine” in it (such as Solarcaine) since those are more likely to trigger allergic reactions. Finally, you can use anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen , aspirin, and cortisone cream to help manage the burn. Wear loose clothing and stay out of the sun entirely while the burn heals, and, of course, drink plenty of water.

If your sunburn comes with severe blistering over large portions of the body, a fever and chills, and wooziness or confusion, you need to see a doctor as soon as possible. If you have blisters, don’t touch them. The last thing you need is an infection on top of a sunburn.

We hope this helps increase your summer safety! Slather on that sunscreen, and join us next week for an overview of other heat illnesses.