While most beauty icons of the aughts held a cavalier attitude towards sunscreen application, it is safe to say that we have arrived in a new age where SPF is deemed vital for any skincare savant worth their salt. There’s Emmy-award winning actress, Zendaya, who dubbed the Lancôme UV Expert Aqua Gel SPF 50 a non-negotiable in her beauty routine; Khloe Kardashian who has openly discussed her struggles with melanoma that led to her utilising sunscreen religiously; as well as Hailee Steinfeld, who revealed in an interview with Vogue that she slathers on a generous layer of EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF46—and stays out of the sun—on the daily. The iron-clad adage remains: prevention is better than cure. And yet, sunburns can still happen despite your due diligence, which brings forth the question: what is the best way to go about handling it?
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“Mild sunburns can recover on their own, but the same can’t be said for more severe variants that affect multiple layers of the skin,” elucidates Dr Gerad Ee, founder and aesthetic doctor at The Clifford Clinic. “Either way, there are several steps you can undertake to make the process more bearable, ranging from moisturising to taking over-the-counter solutions for pain relief.”
It is a sentiment that Dr Sylvia Ramirez, medical and scientific director of Cutis Medical Laser Clinic, agrees with, though she is quick to point out that the right treatment hinges on the gravity of the wound. “Factors that affect the degree of sunburn include time of exposure, intensity of exposure and your skin type,” Dr Ramirez states. “For example, someone with very light skin and light eyes, and where the skin doesn’t tan—what we call Fitzpatrick Skin Type 1—can be sunburnt within 10 minutes of exposure. On the other hand, someone with light or darker brown skin, such as those of us from Asia, may develop a sunburn only after 30 or even 60 minutes of exposure without protection.”
And that is not the only consideration to take into account. Below, a comprehensive rundown on what you need to know about sunburns as detailed by medical professionals—alongside the factors of note that might hamper the healing process, vulnerable areas to pay extra attention to, and more.
What is a sunburn, exactly?
“A sunburn is a type of skin damage that occurs when the skin is exposed to excessive amounts of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or other sources such as tanning beds. The two types of UV (ultraviolet) light in UV radiation are UVA and UVB,” says Dr Ee. “UVB has a shorter wavelength than UVA and primarily affects the top layer of the skin. It is the primary cause of sunburn and is a significant contributor to the development of skin cancer. UV radiation, on the other hand, can cause damage to the DNA in skin cells, leading to inflammation, redness, pain, and peeling of the skin.”
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How can you identify the severity of your sunburn?
Dr Ramirez believes that categorising sunburns into three different classifications is the best way to go about it. “Just like in burns from other causes, you can grade these into first, second and third degree burns,” she shares. “First degree sunburns affect the epidermis or the outermost layer of the skin, and can present as redness, swelling and mild blistering. The skin can also peel—the good news is this type of burn recovers on its own in a few days or so. A second degree burn, on the other hand, affects the second layer of the skin and will present as more extensive blistering, pain, shininess, and skin discoloration. This can be treated at home but it is best to see your doctor for assessment. A third degree sunburn can also happen, and this is where all layers of the skin are affected, and requires emergency treatment.”
“Third-degree burns, naturally, are the most severe, where they affect all layers of skin, including the tissue beneath the skin,” agrees Dr Ee. “Symptoms may include charring, blackening, or the white appearance of the skin.”
Are there any vulnerable areas on your face and body that are in need of more protection?
According to Dr Ramirez, in a recent publication examining characteristics of sunburn, the neck and shoulders were reported to be most commonly sunburnt at 66 per cent, followed by the face or head at 53% (Holman, et al. Am J Prev Med 2021). “Sunburn on arms and hands were seen in 40 per cent and the back in 24 per cent,” she continues. “These areas are often exposed to the sun and may not be covered by clothing or hats.”
What are some of the best ways to go about treating a sunburn?
Dr Ee finds that half the battle is won by keeping the affected area moisturised, as this will help reduce the likelihood of itching and dryness, while also aiding in the recovery process. This is attributed to the nature of sunburns, which draws fluids to the skin’s surface and away from the body. “A moisturising lotion or cream should do the trick. Aloe vera gel is a popular option, seeing how it helps cool and soothe the skin,” he says. “For those who are experiencing pain and persistent stinging though, I’d recommend opting for over-the-counter pain relief in the form of ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Unless, of course, you’re experiencing blistering, fever, or chills—in this case, you should seek medical attention.”
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Are there any factors to consider that could potentially hamper the healing process?
“Continued exposure to the sun, picking or peeling of the affected skin, and not keeping the affected area moisturised comes to mind,” states Dr Ramirez. “Certain medications or medical conditions, such as immune disorders or diabetes, may also slow the healing process. Remember though that though your skin will heal, real damage has been done as repeated sunburns put you at increased risk for skin cancer and premature ageing of your skin.”
What are some products to add to your arsenal to help prevent sunburns?
Beyond physical and chemical sunscreens, Dr Ee also feels that oral supplements are a worthwhile consideration. “Oral sunblock is a type of dietary supplement that can serve as an additional form of protection against the sun. One of the more popular supplement brands in the market is Heliocare, which contains an extract of the fern Polypodium leucotomos. Heliocare oral sunblock essentially works by providing antioxidant protection to the skin, where it helps to reduce the damage caused by UV radiation. Do note, however, that while it is a good add-on to your sun care routine, it should not be a substitute for your day-to-day SPF.”
Dr Ramirez, on the other hand, feels that the focus should lie more on the application of sunscreen rather than one exact product. “If you are spending a lot of time outside, use the “teaspoon rule”; this means a teaspoon of sunscreen to each leg, the chest, the back, and a half teaspoon to each arm, the face and the neck. Not using enough sunscreen may reduce its actual SPF rating,” she asserts. “You should ralso eapply sunscreen after sweating, rubbing the skin, drying off with a towel, or swimming.”