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What is it

Sunburn is an inflammation of the skin caused by overexposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun in particular UVB, or ultraviolet B, radiation. (UVA, or ultraviolet A, penetrates more deeply than UVB but is less likely to cause an immediate bum. Rather, it causes wrinkling and leathering, damages connective tissue, and maybe crucial in the development of melanoma, the most deadly of skin cancers.)

Sunburn is not only painful, but it speeds up the aging of your skin and significantly increases your chances of developing skin cancer. If you have fair skin, blue eyes, or red hair, you’re at greatest risk for sunburn, but even if you have a dark complexion, you need to be careful in the sun. Most sun-burns are first-degree bums, but extreme overexposure especially if you are fair-skinned can result in second- or even third-degree bums.


  • Reddish skin that feels hot and tender (mild sunburn).
  • Small, fluid-filled blisters that may itch and eventually break.

What causes it

Exposure to the sun thickens the skin while encouraging the production of melanin, a pigment that absorbs UV rays. This is the skin’s defense against the sun. African Americans and other dark-skinned people probably don’t need any sort of sun protection because their high concentration of melanin protects them from UV rays. They seldom develop skin cancer and are less susceptible to sun-induced wrinkles.

But in people who are not genetically dark skinned, repeated exposure to UV rays can result in the destruction of elastic fibers in the skin, which causes it to sag and wrinkle and damages blood vessels. Even though people who Tan easily appear to be less susceptible to skin cancer, they still need protection against UV rays.

What if you do nothing

Although very painful, a sun-burn eventually heals as the skin renews itself, generally taking from one to four days for a first-degree burn that reddens the upper skin layer (epidermis) to four to seven days for a more severe second degree bum that affects underlying layers.

Home remedies

Virtually everyone is susceptible to some degree of damage from the sun’s rays. If you inadvertency get burned by the sun, the following tips will help minimize any pain and swelling.

Soak the affected area for 15 minutes in cold water

Not ice water, or apply cold compresses. This provides some immediate relief from the pain, conducts heat away from your skin, and reduces swelling.

Get some pain relief

If your sunburn is very painful, take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. Aspirin and ibuprofen will both relieve pain and help reduce inflammation.

Try cooling lotions

Products that contain menthol or camphor may provide temporary relief by affecting the nerve endings and constricting superficial blood vessels in the skin. Be careful: they can be irritating and can cause allergic reactions, especially in children.

Don’t apply greasy creams or lotions such as petroleum jelly or baby oil

These types of oily products act to seal in the heat.

Spray on first aid

If the bum is very painful, you may want to consider a first aid spray containing benzocaine, a topical anesthetic that also acts on the nerve endings in the skin. Be careful, as this may sensitize the skin and lead to an allergic reaction upon subsequent applications of other medications in the “-caine” family. Don’t use other “-caine” anesthetics for sunburn: they are readily absorbed into the bloodstream if the skin is broken and may cause inunediate toxic or allergic reactions.

Prepare your sheets

Sprinkle talcum powder on your sheets to minimize chafing and friction.

If you are sunburned all over your body, try an oatmeal bath

The oatmeal soothes the skin and reduces inflammation. You can buy oatmeal bath products (such as Aveeno) in drugstores, but these tend to be expensive. Make your own oatmeal soak at home by finely grinding a cup of dry instant oatmeal in a blender or food processor. Scatter the oatmeal in a tub of cool water and soak for a while. (Cornstarch works just as well.)

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