Why do we get sunburns?
Sunburns occur if the skin gets too much sun with minimal proper protection and yes they can occur on even cloudy or overcast days! Majority of sunburns are mild, also known as first-degree sunburn, causing some erythema (redness) and painful when touching the skin. This type of sunburn only affects the most outer layer of the skin. These sunburns are typically able to be treated at home.
This is in contrast to severe sunburns such as second and third-degree sunburns that are characterized as intense erythema (redness), pain, blistering, swelling and sometimes, other symptoms including headache, chills, fatigue, abdominal pain or even a fever. These severe sunburns compromise the integrity of the protective skin barrier and the ability of the body to maintain an internal equilibrium. When this occurs, seeking medical attention is strongly recommended given a concern for sun poisoning.
The most important initial step is cooling and protecting the skin! Move to a sun protected area, apply cool compresses to the exposed skin, frequent skin moisturization and oral anti-inflammatory non-steroidal medication (i.e. ibuprofen) every six to eight hours are helpful to treating a sunburn. Non-steroidal anti-anti-inflammatory medications, available over-the-counter, block a substance called prostaglandin which is involved in the inflammatory response and will help reduce the redness, pain and swelling.
A helpful tip is to place aloe vera calming gel in the refrigerator for a few hours prior to application—the cooling sensation will help further reduce any skin discomfort. Another helpful tip is to drink a lot of water! A sunburn draws the fluid from the skin’s surface—so make sure to quench your skin’s thirst as this will help reduce recovery time.
An over-the-counter hydrocortisone may be helpful in reducing the inflammation, soothe pain and irritation from the sunburn. I recommend making an at-home/DIY “medicated moisturizer” by mixing over-the-counter hydrocortisone 1% cream with a thick moisturizer, such as vaseline.
Soaking washcloths with cold milk, containing lactic acid, may help with removing the dead layers of the skin and help the compromised sunburned skin heal faster and of course, cold milk is recommended because the cooling effect will help soothe the warm, irritated skin.