“What’s a little bit of sun?” “It’s not very sunny today. I don’t need to wear sunscreen.” “Oh, it’s just a little burn. Not a big deal.” “I just need a touch of sun so I don’t look so white.”
Let’s take a closer look.
What Causes Sunburn?
A sunburn is caused by exposure to too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun. UVA are long wavelengths and UVB are short wavelengths of ultraviolet light. It is not the sunlight itself that causes sunburn, but the presence and strength of the UVA and/or UVB rays. That’s why on a cloudy day you can still get a sunburn. In fact, “[a]s much as 90 percent of UV rays pass through clouds. UV rays can also reflect off snow, ice, sand, water and other reflective surfaces [including white or bright colored clothing] and can burn your skin as badly as direct” sun exposure. (MayoClinic.com)
Your body produces a pigment called melanin, which gives your skin its normal colors. The darker your skin the more melanin your body produces. When you are exposed to ultraviolet light your body produces more melanin to protect the deeper layers of the skin resulting (at least in lighter skinned people) a suntan.
“A suntan is actually your body’s way of blocking the UV rays to prevent sunburn and other skin damage.” (MayoClinic.com) Some people genetically do not produce enough melanin to protect the skin well, and eventually skin burns.
Unlike a burn resulting from direct contact with a heat source (eg: fire or stove element), the skin doesn’t redden right away. By the time pain is felt, the damage has already been done. “Sunburn in a very light-skinned person may occur in less than 15 minutes of noonday sun exposure ...” (University of Notre Dame).
Still think a sunburn is no big deal? Let’s look at some statistics.
Results of Long-Term Sunburn or Sun Exposure
Long-term UVA and UVB exposure (including tanning beds) is the leading cause of both basal and squamous cell cancers ... the most common form of cancer in Canada and the United States. Studies have shown that even one blistering sunburn in a person’s life (and most severe burns happen during childhood) doubles the possibility of developing malignant melanoma. (University of Notre Dame)
The following statistics are from the Skin Cancer Foundation at www.skincancer.org.:
• More than 3.5 million skin cancers in over two million people are diagnosed annually.
• Each year more new cases of skin cancers are diagnosed than all the incidence of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers COMBINED.
• One in five American will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
• About 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet radiation.
• Every 62 minutes one person dies of melanoma.
• The incidence of melanoma is rising at a faster rate than any of the seven other most common cancers, of which the incidence is decreasing.
• Melanoma accounts for less than five percent of skin cancer cases, but it causes more than 75 percent of skin cancer deaths.
• Women aged 39 and under have a higher probability of developing malenoma than any other cancer except breast cancer.
• Frequent tanners using new high-pressure sunlamps may receive as much as 12 times the annual UVA dose compared to the dose they receive from sun exposure.
• Indoor ultraviolet tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors.
• Asian-American and African-American melanoma patients have a greater tendency than Caucasians to present with advanced disease at the time of diagnosis because of their darker pigmentation.
Heard enough? (If you wish to read more statistics please visit the skincancer.org listed in the sources.)
Protecting yourself from Sunburn
Luckily, the same statistics show that survival with melanoma has increased from 49 percent from 1950-1954 to 92 percent from 1996-2003, and the survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected before the tumor has penetrated the skin is about 99 percent. (Skincancer.com)
However, the simplest way to make sure you are a skin cancer survivor is to protect your skin so that cancer doesn’t happen to you in the first place. Preventing sunburn is so easy and yet so many people deliberately put themselves at risk by overusing tanning beds or not wearing sunscreen.
Tips for Preventing Sunburn
• Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
• If you have to be outside wear tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs and a broad-brimmed hat, as opposed to a baseball cap.
• Use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more and don’t forget to reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
• Wear sunglasses. This is especially important for fair-skinned, blue-eyed people, who studies have shown to have an increased risk of cataracts due to sun exposure. Wrap around frames are best.
Treating Sunburn at Home
• Take anti-inflammatory medications (eg: Advil, Motrin, Aspirin) to reduce redness and soreness. Aspirin should not be given to children.
• Apply cold compresses, take a cool (not cold) bath or shower and pat dry
• Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water to help replenish your body’s loss of moisture.
• Apply moisturizing creams containing shea butter, aloe vera, cucumber extract to sunburned areas.
• If blisters form, do not break them. If they break on their own, apply an antibacterial cream so they do not get infected. And watch the blisters for any sign of pus.
• Avoid using benzocaine products on children under the age of 2 unless recommended by a doctor.
See a doctor if…
• Blistering covers a large portion of your body
• Sunburn is accompanied by a high fever, extreme pain, headache, confusion, nausea or chills
• Sunburn does not respond to at-home remedies within a few days
• There is increased swelling, pain and tenderness
• There is yellow drainage from an open blister (if the blisters burst only a water-like fluid should come out)
• Red streaks leading away from the open blister extending in a line upward along your arm or leg appear.
Skin Cancer Facts. Skin Cancer Foundation. Web. Accessed: Oct 20, 2011. http://www.skincancer.org/Skin-Cancer-Facts
“Summer sunburn and sun exposure among US youths ages 11 to 18: national prevalence and associated factors” Pediatrics. 2002 Jul; 110(1 Pt 1): 27-35. Web. Accessed: Oct 20, 2011.
“Sunburn Prevalence Among Adults – United States, 1999, 2003, and 2004” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report June 1, 2007 / 56(21);524-528. Centers for Disease Control. Web. Accessed: Oct 20, 2011. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5621a2.htm#top
What Causes Sunburn? University of Notre Dame. Web. Accessed: Oct 20, 2011. http://uhs.nd.edu/assets/9498/sunburns_2008.pdf
Sunburn. Mayoclinic.com. Web. Accessed: Oct 20, 2011. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sunburn/DS00964/DSECTION=symptoms
Reviewed October 20, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith