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Overexposure to the sun's Ultraviolet Rays (UV rays) can lead to various degrees of sunburn to your skin, from being slightly uncomfortable to being blistered extensively.

So, what is Sunburn?

For humans, the Sun is both beautiful and life giving, but powerful and if not treated with respect, dangerous. While it lights our day and provides essential life giving energy, sunlight can be harmful to human skin, regardless of the color. The Earth's atmosphere blocks much of the harmful light, but burning will occur when the UV rays from the sun are allowed to penetrate through your skin, causing inflammation. Depending on your skin type, a moderate exposure to ultraviolet radiation will create a slight red blush to the skin, but severe exposure may result in raised blisters, pain and eventually a peeling of the dead skin layers.

As ultraviolet rays penetrate the skin, they break down collagen and elastin, which are the two main structural components of the skin. This results in the wrinkled appearance of sun-damaged skin. In addition, the sun damages the DNA of the exposed skin cells. In response, the cells release enzymes that excise the damaged parts of the DNA and encourage the production of replacement DNA. This process can go wrong and result in skin cancer.

At the same time, the production of melanin increases, which causes the skin to darken. Melanin is a pigment that gives skin its color, but also acts as a barrier to further damage by absorbing the ultraviolet light. Effectively, a suntan is the skin's natural response to protect itself. Light-skinned people and infants are therefore especially susceptible to ultraviolet rays because they lack sufficient melanin protection. Some people have an increased photosensitivity through certain diseases or drugs and are required to be extra diligent when in the sun.

Symptoms and Effects of Sunburn

So if burning is the skin's natural, defensive reaction to getting burnt through overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays, is a sunburn much to fuss about? Not all sunburns are the same of course, so the symptoms vary quite a bit, along with the seriousness of the damage.

If you are someone with a skin that can endure the sun's rays reasonably well, you may find you can be in the sun for an hour and not get burnt, whereas those with very fair skin may get burnt within no time at all!

The most common symptoms include a redness of the skin which is hot to the touch, swelling, tender/painful skin on touching, peeling skin, and when severe, blistering. However, these symptoms usually only occur a few hours after being in the sun, not immediately. Invariably this means that you sit out there in the sun believing you are not getting burnt and only find out a few hours later just how burnt you actually are!

Not only is it painful and unsightly, but every time you get sunburnt, you put yourself at risk of certain complications and the related skin diseases. These include dry, wrinkled, aged skin, liver spots, actinic keratoses and skin cancers.

Treatment for Sunburn

Depending on how burnt you actually are, there are different ways to deal with your burns.

One cannot undo the damage done when you have got burnt, but you can assist the skin to recover. Sometimes it may take several days for the skin to begin it's healing process, although it may take 12 to 24 hours after sun exposure to know the full extent and severity of the sunburn, and several days or more for your skin to begin to heal. In the meantime, the following effective treatments will simply help to ease your discomfort:

  • Keep it cool. The best thing first is a cool bath or shower or even cold compresses applied to the affected areas helps
  • Keep it Moist. Apply moisturizing gels or creams, especially those containing Aloe Vera or Aloe Ferox, as it helps soothe the redness and offers some temporary relief, as well as guarding against infection. You can even use the leaf direct from the garden - break off a piece of a leaf and apply the gel like substance directly onto your damaged skin
  • Leave blisters alone. The skin forms blisters to assist the healing process. Bursting these will decrease this ability as well as increase the chance for infection
  • Handle peeling skin with care. Resist speeding up the process by peeling the skin off and let it come off naturally, but continue using the moisturizing creams to assist the skins healing power. The worst thing you can do for your skin is to irritate it by rubbing, scratching, or picking at it

Consulting a doctor is recommended if any of the following situations arise:

  • High fever
  • Large areas of the body covered in blisters
  • Extreme pain. If you experience particularly painful burns then you may have to turn to an over-the-counter pain reliever

Prevention and/or Protection from Sunburn

Treatment of any sunburn, never mind severe burns, is quite unnecessary if you make the right choice in protecting your skin upfront when exposed to the sun. Sunlight is extremely good for one's health and so if you know you'll be out in the sunlight for a while, take a few steps to keep sunburn from ruining your day by practicing good sun care.

You can prevent burning and the related skin conditions by protecting your skin whenever you're outdoors, even on cloudy days, by:

  • Using a good quality sunscreen or sunblock to exposed areas of skin, not forgetting to apply it to areas that are often forgotten: ears, nose, back of the neck, feet, toes
  • Wearing protective clothing such as hats, sarongs, and long-sleeve
  • Controlled exposure when the sun is most potent - usually from 11 AM to 1 PM. Typically, this is when your shadow is shorter than you are. For your children, or more sensitive skins, reduce exposure to the sun particularly during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m
  • Additionally, it is believed by some medical experts that eating the right foods can also help to protect you from sunburn. Everyday items such as oily fish like mackerel and herring, and fresh fruits and vegetables, contain substances which reduce the skin's sensitivity to the sun's harmful rays. Research projects in this line have produced some thought provoking results

Scientists are continually researching to understand what the most effective foods are to enable the skin's resistance to the sun, not as a substitute for sunscreen creams, but rather as an additional protective barrier. Thinking is predominantly focused around a diet of oily fish and fresh fruit and vegetables which provide vitamins and antioxidants.

For example, a Dr Lesley Rhodes, consultant dermatologist and photobiologist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, carried out a study of fish oil. Omega-3, a polyunsaturated fatty acid, is abundant in fish oils and is believed to act as an internal sunscreen against sunburn and light-sensitive rashes. Dr Rhodes conducted a series of tests with a number of volunteers to measure burns caused by ultraviolet light on small areas of their skin. Then they were given the equivalent of 2 plates of oily fish a day, contained in Omega-3 capsules, for a period of 3 months. Subsequently, the repeated exposure to ultraviolet light caused significantly less sunburn.

Quote... "Sunburn is very becoming - but only when it is even - one must be careful not to look like a mixed grill" Noel Coward (1899 - 1973), British dramatist, actor, and songwriter. The Lido Beach, 1928

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