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Published July 18, 2012, 11:30 PM

Mathison: Understanding the science of a sunburn

Lobster, tomato, fried, baked – ’Tis the season for cuisine-related descriptors for the effects of too much sun on our skin.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

Lobster, tomato, fried, baked – ’Tis the season for cuisine-related descriptors for the effects of too much sun on our skin.

While sunburn may seem like just a temporary irritation, it can cause long-lasting damage to the skin.

A few weeks ago in this column, I showed you a picture of what long-term low-level sun exposure does to your skin: wrinkles, sagging, spots and lines.

But what happens when you plan for a fun day in the sun, but forget to make plans for your skin?

I still remember the summer of 1981, my worst sunburn. After a long afternoon at a friend’s new backyard pool, my face, back and chest were red, and I had blisters on my forehead and shoulders.

I was working as a hostess and cashier at Red Lobster restaurant. How appropriate! The food was great there, but I didn’t look so great.

It took a week for the burn to fade, and then I started peeling like a snake. I know this sunburn doubled my risk for melanoma, and increased my risk for other skin cancers as well.

Dr. Zoe Draelos, a well-known dermatologist from North Carolina, bluntly states about sunburn: “The proteins in your skin are getting cooked.”

DNA damage has occurred. The body responds to the damage with increased blood flow to the skin in order to bring in cells to repair the damage. The extra blood in the capillaries of the skin causes the redness. Other inflammatory cells arrive to help in the repair process.

The first signs may not appear for a few hours after exposure and usually increase for the next 24 hours. A sunburn can easily rise to the level of first- and second-degree burns. Swelling, pain, blisters and hives may also occur. Fever, chills, nausea, headache and weakness indicate a severe reaction that may require a visit for medical help.

Children are especially susceptible. In rare cases, sunburn can be fatal.

Sunburn results when the amount of exposure to the sun or other ultraviolet light source exceeds the ability of the body’s protective pigment, melanin, to protect the skin. The same amount of sun exposure affects people differently depending on how much melanin is in their skin.

Some people try to build up a protective layer of melanin getting a base tan before going on vacation. This has been shown to provide protection equivalent to SPF of 3 or 4, not enough for a day at the beach.

The amount of melanin naturally occurring is mostly due to genetics. While fair-skinned people are more likely to get burned, even people with darker complexions can burn and hyperpigment.

Certain medications can also make you more susceptible to sunburn, such as Doxycycline, which I frequently prescribe for acne patients and sinus infection sufferers. Other culprits include cholesterol drugs, diuretics, sulfa and cipro antibiotics, tranquilizers and topical treatments like Retin-A.

If you do get a sunburn:

  • Try taking a cool shower or bath, or placing wet, cold wash rags on the burn. Dr. Draelos suggest cold skim milk as a skin soother.

  • Avoid products that contain benzocaine, lidocaine, or petrolalum (like Vaseline).

  • Take care if blisters are present to help prevent infection.

  • If your skin is not blistering, apply moisturizing cream to relieve discomfort.

  • Take over the counter medications, like ibuprofen, to relieve pain and decrease the inflammation from sunburn.

  • DON’T give aspirin to children. Cortisone creams may help reduce the inflammation. I would try aloe gel first.

  • Wear loose cotton clothing.

Sunburn increases the metabolic demands on the body, increasing the needs for water and other nutrients to prevent skin breakdown and secondary infections.

We use Gentlewaves LED light in our office. It’s been shown to speed the rate of recovery for sunburn and radiation dermatitis.

Sunburn is better prevented than treated. Remember, the sun’s rays are strongest between the 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. They’re also stronger at higher altitudes and lower latitudes (closer to the tropics). Reflection off water, sand, or snow can intensify the sun’s burning rays.

Effective sunscreens are available in a wide variety of strengths. Most doctors recommend a broad spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30, reapplied every 2 hours. I recommend zinc and titanium based sunblockers over the chemically based products that break down more quickly. Apply generously. Use about a shot glass size of product for your body and face.

Don’t forget to protect your eyes to, as UV exposure increases the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.

If you are out in the sun for a prolonged period of time during the day, wearing a hat and other protective clothing is recommended. Light clothing reflects the sun most effectively. Rit Dye makes products that you can rinse your clothes in to make them shield UV damage.

Sun and outdoor activities are good for our soul, but can be hard on our skin. Plan ahead to protect your body’s largest organ, your skin, and you’ll be happier and safer.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.