Health Tips / Sunburn

Most people have had at least one vacation ruined by sunburn. Usually, they then smarten up and remember that heading outside means putting on sunblock. Children are frequent victims of sunburn, their time in the sun flying by as sandcastles get bigger and bigger. We grown-ups can be caught unaware, too. Whether skiing, backpacking, or just sprawled on the chilly deck of a cruise ship, we just don’t notice until it’s too late how the dazzling sunlight has baked our pale arms, legs, and face into a glowing lobster red.

You can feel quite sick with a bad sunburn. And it can be dangerous as well, because your risk of developing skin cancer increases after a bad burn. Our WholeHealth Chicago Healing Center offers a variety of recommendations for soothing sunburn pain, healing skin damage, and strengthening your resistance to infections and cancer. And we’ll give you lots of suggestions for preventing sunburn in the first place.

What is Sunburn?

The sun emits two types of harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation: ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). Both can burn the skin, causing reddening and inflammation. The sun’s UVA rays deeply penetrate the base layer of the skin (the dermis), damaging tissue and setting the stage for skin cancer. But it’s the UVB rays that are more likely to cause an immediate sunburn. Symptoms of a sunburn, such as redness and pain, usually appear gradually, often not peaking until 24 hours after unprotected exposure to sunlight. The intensity of the burn can range from mild or moderate to severe in extreme cases. People with fair skin, blue eyes, and blond or red hair burn most easily, but even those with darker complexions can be damaged by the sun’s harmful rays

All degrees of sunburn contribute to the premature wrinkling and leathering of the skin, as well as age spots. A number of studies have also confirmed that there is a sunburn-skin cancer link.

Severe sunburns, particularly in childhood and the teenage years, have been linked to the development of potentially serious skin cancers (including malignant melanoma) later in life. Fair-haired redheads have three times the melanoma risk compared with the general population.

Repeated sunburns, even if they’re not particularly severe, have an incremental effect and also increase a person’s cancer risk. Experts estimate that in the United States alone more than one million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed every year.

Key Symptoms

  • Pink or reddish skin that feels hot and tender to the touch (mild sunburn).
  • Red skin with small fluid-filled blisters that may itch and eventually break (moderate sunburn).
  • Deep red to purplish skin–with or without blisters–accompanied by chills, fever, headache, nausea, dizziness, or dehydration (severe sunburn).

What Causes Sunburn?

The amount of sun exposure needed to produce a sunburn depends on a number of factors. Most important is a person’s skin pigmentation, signifying the amount of melanin present in the skin. Melanin is a pigment that absorbs UV rays. Dark-skinned people have a high concentration of melanin, and so are less likely to become sunburned than are people with fair skin, who have less melanin.

Other factors that affect sunburn risk include:

Geographical location. The farther you are from the equator, the weaker and less direct are the sun’s rays and the less likely you are to develop a sunburn. Altitude is a factor as well: The higher up you are, the closer you are to the sun’s damaging rays. A 1999 study reported that residents of Vail, Colorado, located 8,500 feet up in the Rocky Mountains, were at 115% greater risk for skin cancer than were people living at the same latitude but closer to sea level.

Season of the year and the time of day. As these shift, the angle of the sun (and thus the intensity of the sun’s damaging rays) alters as well. Many newspapers and radio and television stations provide the daily UV Index; check it out and protect yourself accordingly.

Weather conditions. Even though cloud cover would seem to reduce the risk of sunburn, in fact 80% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays pass right through clouds. Some of the worst burns can be acquired on cool, cloudy days because the skin never “feels” hot.

Amount of time spent in the sun. The longer you’re exposed, the more time the ultraviolet light has to penetrate the skin’s outer layers and do its damage.

Use of certain drugs. Some antibiotics and corticosteroids, for instance, can make your skin more sensitive to sun exposure, as can the herb St. John’s wort. It’s always wise to check with your doctor or pharmacist about the medications you take to see if any causes an increased sensitivity to the sun.

Conventional Treatments

Most mild sunburns heal on their own in a matter of days as the skin renews itself. The redness will fade, and the skin may peel. Cool baths and simple moisturizers can provide some relief.

A severe burn can take as long as a week or more to heal. In some cases, severe sunburns with blistering are considered medical emergencies, particularly when the burn covers a large area of skin and also causes headache, fever, or chills.

Conventional treatment of this kind of injury includes keeping the area free of infection as it heals, and making sure that the person stays well-hydrated with fluids.

Finally, periodic checkups with a primary-care doctor or a skin doctor (dermatologist) is useful to check for signs of long-term sun damage.


A number of over-the-counter medications can help relieve the pain and, in cases of severe sunburn, accompanying inflammation.

If you suspect you were overexposed to sunlight but symptoms have yet to develop, try taking one or two aspirin; this may help to minimize the coming inflammation and pain of the burn. Conventional nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs such as ibuprofen) may help the pain as well.

Benzocaine and other “-caine” products (including Solarcaine) are standard over-the-counter remedies for sunburn pain, which are available in sprays and other easy-to-apply forms. Be sure to stop using the product, however, if it seems to cause increased skin sensitivity.

In cases of extensive sunburn damage, doctors may prescribe oral corticosteroids (for up to 10 days) to lessen inflammation and reduce the risk of scarring.

Treatment and Prevention

Unless a sunburn is quite severe, the skin will heal on its own, and a number of home remedies (see Self-Care Remedies, below) can help to soothe your discomfort as you wait for the skin to renew itself.

Prevention: Without a doubt, prevention is the easiest and most effective way to contend with sunburns and prevent the long-term risks (from premature wrinkles to skin cancer) associated with sun exposure. The best prevention strategy includes not staying in the sun for long periods, choosing a good sunscreen, and using it properly.

To avoid the sun’s damaging rays, remember:

  • Timing is key. The sun is strongest (and most likely to burn the skin) between 10 A.M. and 4 P.M., even on overcast days.
  • Beware of reflective surfaces. Water or sand can bounce as much as 17% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays back at you. Snow can play the same trick, reflecting up to 80% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
  • Cover exposed skin. Wear tightly woven dark-colored garments (they give more protection), high-quality sunglasses (look for ones designed to block ultraviolet radiation), and a wide-brimmed hat (a 4-inch brim is sufficient).
  • Protect children. Be sure youngsters are protected, especially babies, because their skin burns more easily than adults’.
  • Forgo the tanning parlor. Tanning machines developed over the past decade emit both UVA and UVB radiation that mimic true sun exposure. These are just as capable of damaging your skin, and as likely to cause sunburn, as a day at the beach.

To choose the right sunscreen, remember:

  • Comparison shop. It’s worth your time to find the product that’s best for you. Sunscreens chemically absorb damaging ultraviolet rays. Sunblocks actually deflect ultraviolet radiation.
  • Pick the right SPF. The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) ratings range from 2 to 60. The numbers indicate a product’s ability to shield you from UVB rays. If you normally burn in 30 minutes, an SPF 15 is designed to protect you for about 450 minutes (15 X 30 = 450 minutes), or more than 7 hours. Most people should start with an SPF of 15 or higher, though more susceptible individuals and children may need an SPF of 30 for better protection.
  • Buy a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen. This is one that protects you from both UVA and UVB rays. Check the label for such compounds as benzophenones, oxybenzone, sulisobenzone, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or Parsol 1789 (butyl methoydibenzoylmethane, also called avobenzone).

To apply the cream correctly, remember:

  • Be generous. Many sunburns develop because too little suncreen is used. Coat the skin liberally, all over. For an average-sized, bathing suit-clad person, aim for an ounce (enough to fill a shot glass) to cover all the exposed skin. Protect your lips with a balm rated SPF 15 or higher.
  • Let it sink in. Apply your suncreen 20 to 30 minutes before going outside. This gives the protective chemicals time to sink in. By letting the sunscreen dry fully, it’s also more likely to stay on your skin and not get wiped off.
  • Reapply often. If you’ve been very active in the sun or water, reapply sunscreen every two hours, even if the product claims to be “waterproof.” There’s evidence, for instance, that people who regularly use sunscreen (SPF 15) develop more sunburns than people who rarely apply sunscreen–perhaps because the sunscreen users think that they’re protected for the whole day when they’re not.
  • Use it year-round. Apply an SPF 15 sunscreen daily, regardless of your skin type. Over a lifetime, most sun exposure–80% by some estimates–comes unexpectedly, during day-to-day tasks. If you wear make-up, apply the sunscreen first or use a cosmetic product that contains SPF 15.

How Supplements Can Help

Supplements are used to enhance the body’s ability to control inflammation (thus preventing some sun damage) or to speed recovery following overexposure to the sun.

Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.

For mild burns (with pain but no broken skin or blistering), try one of the following remedies:

  • Chamomile oil and lavender oil (10 drops each) can be added to a cool bath; soak for at least 30 minutes.
  • A lukewarm bath containing 1 cup of dissolved baking soda is another alternative; soak for at least 10 minutes.
  • Fresh aloe vera gel, calendula cream, chamomile cream or chamomile oil, and lavender oil can be topically applied to sunburned skin to soothe irritation and speed up healing.

For moderate burns (small areas of blistering that make infection a concern), try one of the following remedies:

  • Rub commercially available (and sterile) calendula cream into a gently cleaned area to lessen inflammation and help prevent infection through the broken skin.
  • Mix a few drops of chamomile oil or lavender oil (or both) with half an ounce of almond oil (or another neutral oil). Apply the mixture gently to the affected areas twice a day.
  • A topical vitamin E cream will help promote healing and prevent scarring. You can make your own by breaking open a capsule and mixing the oil with 1 tablespoon of moisturizing cream (see Self-Care Remedies, below).
  • Apply flaxseed oil topically, which will reduce inflammation, and take it orally to promote overall skin health and texture.

For severe burns (deep burn with systemic symptoms such as fever, confusion, and dehydration), don’t attempt self-treatment for an extensive sunburn with severe symptoms. Go to an emergency room or an immediate-care center, or call your family doctor. For all degrees of sunburn, two antioxidants–vitamin C and vitamin E–should be taken long-term because sun exposure releases free- radical molecules within the body that can damage the skin.

For prevention: In addition, there are new research developments concerning vitamins (and even foods) that may prevent or delay the damaging effects of overexposure to the sun. Vitamin A supplements have shown some promise in this regard, although this work is still in experimental stages.

One recent study, for instance, found that a five-year regimen of oral vitamin A supplementation had a dramatic effect in reducing certain types of skin cancer cells in nearly 2,300 study participants. All were at increased risk for full-blown skin cancer because of a history of precancerous skin changes.

Because high doses of vitamin A have the potential to damage the liver as well as causing other problems, this type of treatment should only be done only under a doctor’s supervision. Research is now underway to determine safe dosage ranges.

Self-Care Remedies

Sunburns certainly are not a new problem for humans, and so traditional remedies for soothing the pain of burned skin are still relevant today.

Try cold compresses.To relieve sunburn pain, make a cold compress by soaking a piece of cotton-flannel or a large gauze pad in cold tap water; place the compress gently on the affected areas. You can also apply cooled, used tea bags to the sunburn–the tannins in tea have an anti-inflammatory effect. Occasionally, cold compresses cause more discomfort; in such cases, try soaking in a lukewarm tub with baking soda added to the bath water.

Soak in a colloidal oatmeal bath. If a large section of your body (say your back and legs) is sunburned, try soaking in a cool bath containing colloidal oatmeal, a product easily found in pharmacies. (You can make your own by grinding 1 cup of dry instant oatmeal in a blender; make sure it’s very fine.) The oatmeal will help moisturize and soften your skin, which can get very dry and irritated following a sunburn. It may also relieve the itch that often accompanies healing skin.

Avoid greasy creams or lotions. Don’t use baby oil or petroleum jelly on a sunburn, since they only trap heat and could eventually cause increased discomfort.

Sprinkle talcum powder between the sheets.This minimizes chafing while you sleep.

Take extra care when in the car. While it’s rare to get sunburned through the closed windows of a car–UVB radiation is blocked by clear glass–you can get cumulative skin damage through windows that aren’t treated to shield UVA radiation. Although most cars made since 1990 have front windshields partially treated against UVA, the back and side windows usually aren’t. So it’s always a good idea to apply sunblock before car trips–especially to children’s sensitive skin.

Alternative Therapies

If your burn is serous enough to require medical attention, certain acupuncture techniques may be useful as a complement to standard medical care. An acupuncture surface treatment activates the “tendinomuscular” or “sinews” acupuncture points for the injured area, and can speed recovery if the treatment is given in the first 10 to 12 days after the sunburn.

Check that your acupuncturist knows how to do this treatment, as some practitioner training programs may not emphasize specialized injury treatments.

When to Call a Doctor

  • If you experience fever, chills, headache, nausea, or dizziness.
  • If large blisters form over an area larger than the size of your hand; such areas of exposed raw skin can become infected.
  • If pain or itching is unusually severe. This could be the sign of a more serious burn.
  • If your symptoms get worse after applying a topical home remedy. Burned tissue can become sensitized to otherwise helpful healing agents.

Supplement Recommendations

From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: Only you can prevent sunburn–supplements can’t. But if you gently smooth the topical versions of some of them onto your skin and take others orally, you can decrease the pain and damage that sunburn causes.

The best treatment, however, is prevention, so be sure to wear protective cover-ups (including a hat) and a sunscreen or sunblock.

How to take the supplements

Topical oils, gels, and creams can calm down your hot skin very quickly. If your burn is only mild, add 10 drops each of chamomile oil and lavender oil to a cool bath. Then soak for 30 minutes or more to soothe your skin and moisturize it.

If your burn is more than mild, prepare a topical emollient with a few drops of chamomile oil or lavender oil, or both, and half an ounce of a neutral oil, such as almond oil. Apply it gently to your burn twice a day.

In addition, aloe vera gel and chamomile cream or calendula cream can also quiet your skin and promote healing. They are available in health-food stores and online.

The antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin E also may be beneficial because sun exposure stimulates free radical molecules that can hurt the skin. If you have a bad burn, smoothing vitamin E cream into your skin can foster healing and prevent scarring.

Flaxseed oil applied topically is a good alternative to vitamin E cream: It’s full of fatty acids that lessen inflammation and speed healing. Taken internally, flaxseed oil helps with sunburn after-care, making your skin feel softer and smoother after several weeks of use.

A colloidal oatmeal bath can soothe and moisturize skin that is irritated and dried from a sunburn. It is also quite effective at reducing the itch that often accompanies healing skin. Just be careful getting out of the tub: Once the oatmeal mixes with water, it can be quite slippery.

For special consideration

You can also dissolve 1 cup of baking soda under the running tap of your bathtub and climb in for a comforting soak. Important:

We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.

Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.

For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD