Sunburn: prevention and treatment

Sunburn is better prevented than treated.

Sunscreens are an important means of prevention, along with hats, clothing and avoiding sun exposure in the middle of the day when ultraviolet (UV) radiation is at its most intense. Sunscreens with the widest range of UVA and UVB block are called broad-spectrum. UVB is more intense than UVA, but UVA can still burn. Pharmacists stock many brands of broad-spectrum sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens
Chemical sunscreens absorb the harmful ultraviolet light to protect the skin against sunburn. Because different chemicals have varying effects on UVA and UVB protection, a combination of chemicals is usually used in sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens should be applied at least 15 minutes before sun exposure, to make the chemicals — cinnamates, octocrylene and the less commonly used para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and derivatives — more active on the skin.

Physical sunscreens
Physical sunscreens deflect UV radiation from the skin rather than absorb it. Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are particularly effective, especially for the nose and ears. The spectrum of titanium dioxide protection extends into the UVA range and so it is often included in combinations with chemical sunscreens.

Other sun protection
Sunscreens alone are not 100 per cent effective in preventing sun-related skin damage. Other essential sun protection includes lip balm with SPF, sunglasses, hats and clothing.

  • Lip salve: you should always protect your lips with special lip sunscreens, as sunburn can reactivate a cold sore on the lips. It is important that you reapply the lip balm frequently, as it tends to be licked off.

  • Sunglasses: check that sunglasses do, in fact, protect against UV light.

  • Hats: you should always wear a hat when in the sun. Many schools now insist that students wear hats at school during summer.

  • Clothes: these should be made of tightly woven fabrics to offer constant sun protection.

Also, you should seek shade whenever possible and try to avoid being outdoors in the middle of the day (11am to 3pm during daylight savings time and 10am to 2pm at other times of the year).

Mild sunburn treatment
If you do get a mild dose of sunburn, you should:

  • wear loose, soft clothing to avoid irritation of the burned skin;

  • use a moisturiser (aloe vera lotion can help provide relief);

  • have a cool bath or put cool compresses on the sunburned area;

  • drink plenty of fluids to maintain hydration; and

  • use local anaesthetics for short-term relief.


Sunburn treatment products
A moisturiser will not prevent peeling, but will help relieve the irritation of dry, flaky skin.

Supplements
Pine bark extract may assist in the treatment of sunburn.

When should you seek medical advice?

  • If you have severe sunburn with blisters, extreme pain, general unwellness, light headedness or a headache.

  • If you have an abnormal amount of sunburn for the amount of sun exposure, and are on medicines prescribed by your doctor, as some medicines can cause your skin to burn more easily.

You should also seek medical advice if your child gets moderate to severe sunburn, as they may need treatment for dehydration, and appropriate skin care.

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