Sunburn is one of the most common, painful warm weather afflictions. It is recommended that you start out with 15 minutes of sun exposure and depending upon the reaction the first day, increase 30 to 45 minutes per day over a two week period. Once you can tolerate an hour a day without redness, extended times can probably be tolerated without burning. Sunburns occur most often between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Exposure to the sun should be avoided during these times.
Three Types of Complexions
Different skin tones affect the skin's reaction to sun exposure. Some complexions are more sun-safe with melanin-rich skin. They do tan and peel, but not noticeably. Others are easy tanning with olive complexions, sometimes called Mediterranean coloring. The third group are sun sensitive and are characterized by fair skin, freckles, light colored eyes and red or blond hair. People with such complexions may not tan, but burn easily.
Melanin is a brownish pigment, which gives color and partial sun protection to people. Sun-safe people have large amounts, easy tanners a lesser amount and sun-senitive people the least. However, melanin does not offer complete protection. Sunlight causes the already present melanin to darken and stimulates more melanin to migrate to the surface which takes a couple of weeks. Too much sun will cause a burn and if it peels, melanin will be lost.
Myths of Sun Exposure
It is a mistaken notion that many health benefits can be derived from the sun's rays. One of the few beneficial effects is the formation of Vitamin D and this may be obtained by other means. Few people realize today's repeated, excessive exposure will lead to irreversible, degenerative skin changes due to cumulative effects. Years of over-exposure can lead to saggy, leathery, wrinkled, blotchy skin and increased incidence of skin cancer, especially among fair-skinned people.
There are two types of sun protection - sunscreens which absorb light, such as PABA, and opaque sunshades which scatter light, such as zinc oxide. Sun protection should be worn all year, especially on the face.
PABA allows melanin formation without sunburn. PABA gives a limited amount of continuing protection, even after swimming or bathing, however, it will eventually wash off and should be reapplied. It is staining, especially to cotton material. When used correctly it offers excellent protection. A sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or more should be used.
Sunshades are opaque chemicals which scatter light, such as zinc oxide. They may need to be applied every one to two hours. These are easily removable, greasy in nature, and generally unacceptable cosmetically, though some companies are beginning to make zinc oxide in fashion colors to coordinate with your bathing suit. They are useful for small areas, such as lips, nose and top of the head for those with a receding hair line.
Treatment of Sunburn
Discomfort is treated with an analgesic, such as aspirin. A cold shower, wet compresses or cold creams may be helpful. Commercial preparations containing local anesthetics such as benzocaine could result in complications and should be avoided in severe, widespread sunburn. Severe pain, nausea, vomiting, swelling and blistering may need to be treated by medical personnel.
Remember that the main cause of skin cancer is over exposure to sunlight and skin cancer is becoming more common among younger people. People who have had severe blistering sunburns as children or teens are more likely to develop a serious form of skin cancer - melanoma. Young people who try to catch up on their tans by exposing themselves to long hours of sunlight on the weekends are also at risk for developing melanoma. See melanoma for more information.