We all know a lot more about skin cancer these days than we did even ten years ago: that it can be the result of too much sun exposure, that sunburns can increase our risk of getting it, and that it can be disfiguring or even fatal.
Despite our increased awareness of the dangers of skin cancer and the ways we can prevent it, however, many of us still aren't doing what we should to protect ourselves from the sun's rays, and plenty of us end up with sunburns after a day out in the heat.
According to surveys done in Canada and the United States, 30 to 40 per cent of adults use sunscreen or seek shade on sunny days, and 30 to 45 per cent of men wear protective clothing — which means a lot of us don't do any of those things. Meanwhile, skin cancer still has the highest prevalence of all cancers in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.
The best way to treat a sunburn is, of course, not to get one in the first place: wear a broad spectrum sunscreen, apply enough and reapply often, cover your skin appropriately, and try to avoid peak hours for UV exposure. But if you've gotten a burn despite your precautions — or because you forgot to take them — here are eight things you can do to encourage healing and ease discomfort.
First, how bad is it?
There are varying degrees of sunburn and they take different amounts of time to heal, says Simona Mazenyte, a U.K. skin therapist. A mild sunburn lasts a few days and has some redness or sensitivity; a moderate sunburn takes about a week to heal and often will peel, and the skin will feel hot to the touch in addition to red and sore; and a severe sunburn can take a couple of weeks to heal, could involve blistering, and may require medical attention.
If your skin feels like it's burning, aspirin can help because of its anti-inflammatory action, says Dr. Neal Schultz, a dermatologist and creator of BeautyRx. You can take it orally or crush it up and make a paste to rub right on your skin. If you can't take aspirin, try Aleve or Advil.
You can also use cortisone ointments applied topically three or four times daily on sunburned skin, Schultz says. "Be sure and use ointments and not creams because the ointments, while they are a little bit thicker and come in a Vaseline-base and are a little bit messier, prevent a chilly sensation and they work much better," he says. Make sure to apply the cream as soon as possible post-sun for the best results.
Treat your skin
There are four main components to look for in a post-sun lotion, says Paula Mendonça, owner of natural skincare line SeaBerry Studios: an oil like olive or coconut, to moisturize and prevent water loss; a humectant like vegetable glycerine to draw moisture into the skin; a hydrosol like chamomile or lavender to soothe and cool; and aloe very for its anti-inflammatory and moisturizing properties.
Finding or making a topical treatment like this will do the combination work of helping your burned skin stay moisturized and start healing.
If the burn is spread over a significant amount of your body, you may find a bath better than a shower, Schultz says — the pressure of the shower on your skin could hurt. Either way, use cool or lukewarm water, and pat your skin dry afterwards instead of rubbing. But avoid ice, which can irritate your skin further.
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Leave those blisters alone!
Resist the urge to scratch irritated skin, or to pop blisters. The last thing you'll want on top of a sunburn is a skin infection. Try cortisone cream if you are very itchy, and wear soft and loose clothing to avoid irritating skin further. If you do notice signs of infection, like blisters or puss, see a doctor because you may need antibiotic treatment.
Should you see a doctor?
Depending on how serious your burn is, you may want to see a doctor or dermatologist for treatment—especially if you start to show signs of sun poisoning. Get assistance if you have multiple small blisters on your skin, or one large blister, says Mazenyte. And if your young child — generally less than 18 months — is sunburned, a trip is also warranted, she says.
When to seek immediate help
There are times when a sunburn warrants a trip to see a medical professional right away, Schultz says. "There comes a point that your sunburn may require medical attention," he says, "namely, if you have a fever over 101 degrees, if you have chills, nausea, vomiting, dizziness or if your sunburn is actually getting worse after the first 12 hours. These are all signs that you need medical attention."