So it's spring in Minnesota, which means that I'm wearing sandals through melting snow and hoping that I don't get frostbite. Sunburn is still a distant dream for me, and probably for any of you that live anywhere with seasons—but it never hurts to think ahead, and hey, for all of you spoiled people that live in warmth year-round, I guess this is better late than never.
It's easy (at least for me) to forget that sunburn is simply that: a burn from the sun's ultra-violet rays, the most powerful source of heat, light, and energy known to humans. When you're stretched out on the beach it's easy to forget the dangers of the hot sun, but you must remember that your skin is a delicate and sensitive (and really important!) part of your body. Overexposure to the sun carries with it the risk of varying degrees of sunburn and sunstroke (see bottom paragraph), as well as various form of skin cancer, as well (see our pages on moles and age spots to learn more).
Keep your skin cool to reduce your sunburn. As soon as you realize you've toasted your skin jump in a cool shower or gently wipe down with a cool washcloth or a cold compress. Don't use soap (or use as little as possible if you have too), because soap will stip your skin of its natural oils, which are essential to healing your damaged skin. Stay out of direct sunlight, wear light clothing, and continue rinsing or soaking with cool water to get rid of your sunburn as fast as possible.
Moisturize your skin, thoroughly and often, to relieve your sunburn. Use an aloe-based moisturizer for aloe's natural healing effects, or use fresh aloe gel straight from the plant (just break off a piece and squeeze). Other gentle moisturizes and antibacterial ointments can help soothe your skin as well. Plain moisturizers (you should avoid heavy dyes or scents) won't do much to relieve pain, but will keep your skin from drying out. If you're in a lot of pain and the burn is bordering on severe, an antibacterial ointment like Solarcaine (which contains the local anesthetic llidocaine); consulting a doctor before using medicated lotaions is advisable (see bottom paragraph for information on degrees of sunburn).
Stay hydrated to help your body get rid of a sunburn. Drink lots of water to keep your body hydrated and cool and to avoid the possibility of over-exhaustion and sunstroke, or heat exhaustion, and heat rash.
Don't further irritate your skin. Wear loose-fitting, gentle clothing (cotton is best) to keep your already tender skin from being rubbed more raw and irritated then it already is. Resist scratching your skin or breaking water blisters; aside from cool water and moisturizing leave your skin as alone and untouched as possible to get rid of your sunburn as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Take a painkiller to reduce inflammation and irritation. An NSAID (non-addictive anti-inflammatory drug) like aspirin or ibuprofen designed specificially to relieve inflammation can help to soothe your skin and reduce the amount of pain you feel while your burn heals. Be careful to stay within or below the recommened dosages for these medication; frequent use and overuse of NSAIDs can cause damage to the stomach lining and even contribute to ulcers.
Further Degrees and Treatments of Sunburn
The severity of a sunburn can range from lobster pink to can't-get-out-of-bed charred, and the way you treat your sunburn should depend on the degree of the burn. A first-degree sunburn reddens the skin and causes mild pain and irritation. A second-degree sunburn reddens the skin and causes some water blisters as well as possible peeling of the skin as part of the healing process. You should be able to treat both on your own, with the suggestions we offer above. In addition to the prior symptoms, third-degree sunburn (like any third-degree burn) is so deep that it causes lower cell damage and the release of fluid, leaving cracks and eruptions in the skin through which bacterial infection can enter. A third-degree sunburn requires immediate attention from a medical professional.
Sunstroke, or heat exhaustion, is the result of spending too much in the heat, without enough hydration (basically your body is overcome with heat) and can accompany a severe sunburn. Symptoms of sunstroke include fatigue, dizziness, weakness, profuse sweating, headaches, confusion/delirium, rapid pulse and respiratory rates, and elevated blood pressure. Treat sunstroke immediately by getting away from the sun into a cool place, resting, and drinking lots of fluids. Immediate medical attention is necesary in the event of collapse or severe symptoms.