Sunburn season is fast approaching. I firmly believe that a tan is just a more aesthetic version of skin damage but year after year I end up with a pretty dark one. Not for lack of trying though. Most years I get a certain degree of a sunburn too. We will talk a little about prevention because it’s irresponsible not to but sometimes a burn is hard to avoid. It’s fine for lots of people to avoid burning but there is a whole section of the population who will probably get one most years and those are people who work outdoors. It might be roofers, lifeguards, gardeners and lots of other trades people. Endurance athletes, surfers, swimmers and outdoor yogis will also have a hard time avoiding a burn most years. Maybe that’s another good thing about Covid this year, less skin damage. Too soon? So here are some of my favorite tips for dealing with a bad burn hopefully before it happens this year to you.
What is a sunburn
A sunburn is what you think it is because you’ve probably had one. It’s actually a type of radiation burn that makes you red and burnt at first and peel after the fact. It can ‘turn’ to a tan for some or just make you peel instantly if you’re very fair skinned. Most people only ever get a ‘first degree’ burn but it can blister and in extreme cases even leave charred spots. If you have a lot of blistering and any black spots you need to seek medical attention right away. When I was training to become a lifeguard I was surprised to learn that it can be a very serious medical condition and even life threatening. That’s because it can bring on a very high fever and even cause a loss of consciousness. While this is very rare it’s a good thing to know in case you are caring for someone else. While the sunburn on its own isn’t a huge deal and really neither are the wrinkles a sunburn (or tan) is indicative of a deep level of tissue damage which dramatically increases your risk of skin cancer years down the road. It’s important to follow that area for years to come for signs of cancer and to prevent the same set of circumstances that led to you getting burned again like that in the future.
Preventing a sunburn
Alright we’re not going to get into too much here because you’ve heard it all before, wear a high SPF sunscreen. Above and SPF of 50 you get diminishing returns but I use 100 since reapplying can be hard on long runs. Avoid direct sun at the highest points of the day, take shade breaks every 15 minuets or so. Everyone has a bottle on hand and I’ve even asked people along my running route to put a bottle out for me on suddenly sunny long runs. Cover your skin when you do have to be outdoors and reapply often. There, you’ve been told.
Why I burn more seasons than not
19 year old me would never have believed it but I spend a lot of time outdoors. As hard as I try I usually end up with a bit of a burn every year and a decent one most years. We work outside and the really hot weather starts all at once here. That day I’m usually in my sports bra in the afternoon and I haven’t had a chance to put on an SPF. I do keep a spray can of 50 in the truck but it doesn’t always make it out. Our days can easily be well over 10 hours long and no SPF, even 100 can totally keep up with that. We usually do take it easy the first week of extreme heat but once we’re acclimatized to it we end up pushing through. Sometimes we’re on the water all day and the reflection off the water can almost double your dose of UV. Since we do so much work on the water sometimes during the day for work I have to swim to retrieve things and such other times I dive in to beat the heat.
Sometimes I end up in situations where there really isn’t a choice. Last year’s lobster burn happened when I was gardening. The guy with the mulch and the skid steer loaded me up with over two yards of mulch instead of a half scoop of one at 10 am. He was trying to be nice and I appreciate getting things for free. Great but I had to unload that and spread it with a shovel and a wheelbarrow before I could go home on the hottest day of the year. Even though I waited to swim until the end four hours later and I put on SPF 100 I could feel my skin burning. Anyway got a great burn for that one! Plus long training workouts for triathlons and half marathons means I usually end up with at least a mild shoulder and chest burn at some point. I’m ‘lucky’ that over the next week after a burn it does change to a tan at least.
How to deal with one
I’m not a dermatologist or an expert on sunburns other then having had a few over the years. During last year’s burn one trick I had in particular made me think I gotta write about this because the people need to know! So here we are. Since I and many of us do deal with the odd sunburn even though we try to prevent it I figured I would share what I’ve learned so far. If you have a hot* tip let us all know in the comments! Here’s what I’ve figured out so far.
Aloe gel: This isn’t exactly ground breaking but aloe gel is freaking amazing for a sun burn on at least three levels. One is it is incredibly cooling going on, like makes you cold cooling and you can keep it in the fridge for even more intense relief. It’s cheap too. The next thing is it is moisturizing and that will go a long way to preventing peeling but after the first couple of days a ‘real’ moisturizer does a better job. The last thing is I do find applying lots of aloe gel in the still burning and red phase makes it turn to a tan faster and has people saying “wow that looks like it hurts” a whole lot less. When I have a burn I put as much aloe as I can on as often as I can that first night for sure, pretty much every 45 minuets or so. Seriously this stuff is worth it’s weight in gold!
Get in a hot bath to kill the burn: So this is the tip is the one that got me to write this post. I’m a bath girl, ideally a hot bath girl and that’s how I discovered this. You know when you get a sunburn, like any other burn, it stings for a long, long time after. Apparently that’s increased blood flow to the area but none the less it’s crazy making. You can’t sleep, sit still, lean on things or maybe even sit, poor you. Icing the whole area is probably impossible or at least messy and cold compresses are too warm too fast. Here’s the secret if you run as hot a bath as hot as you possibly can stand and soak the sunburned area (or any burn really) in hot water for as long as you can stand it kills the burn. This does make the burning feeling so much worse at first and I’ll be honest even if you know it will help it’s the anticipation that sucks. Think rubbing alcohol on a cut. But afterwards the burn is gone or almost gone and you can get to sleep. It’s probably best not to come in directly from the sun and hop in the tub but wait a few hours first. Use common sense and don’t get in water hot enough to burn you on it’s own okay. Last year it was my back that suffered and after applying aloe gel on repeat for a few hours in the evening I did a hot soak, immersing my back for longer and longer each time. Every time it hurt less initially and I could stay in longer until I could just hang in the hot water and actually got a good night’s sleep! PS this does work for other burns too.
Hydrate: Even if a sunburn isn’t terrible it does tend to cover a large portion of you. Because of this it can make your body go a bit haywire and set off one hell of an inflammatory response. You may find that spot and all over is soft, squishy and bloaty. It can also make you feel super hot, then freezing, then hot again. Being well hydrated will help with that and drinking ice cold water and hot tea intermittently can help you at least feel colder, then warmer, then colder again. Also you’ll flush out all that bloat a lot faster!
Don your softest older t shirt: Nothing feels good to wear when you have a sunburn. Last summer I must have tried on 10 tees and tanks before taking them off again and trying something else. You might have some trial and error too. But you know that old, old, ripped washed at least 20 too many times shirt. Yup that’s the one you want! Bonus if you can find a tank top. Or hang out naked if you can.
Sleep naked in cotton sheets: High quality cotton sheets over here every day I read somewhere they are best for sleeping and I thought they might help with insomnia. Lots of sheets now are polyester or have those terrible pills on them. Tonight with your sunburn you will be a lot like the princess and the pea if she was a lot more sensitive. Opt for good cotton sheets if you can for smoothness and breathability.
Go braless or wear a bikini top: That first night you aloe-d a bunch, did the tub trick and then added more aloe right? Well by now the burn level should have subsided a bit but a bra might seem a lot more like torture today right! Well if you have a shirt where you can skip it go for it. If not opt for a bikini top they often aren’t quite as tight, are made of slippery smooth material and give some support. I like the classic string on these days since you can pull the back up high past the burn and it’s just one little strap across the back. If you’re burn is lower lucky you it’s a loose skirt and no undies day and that’s easier to pull off!
Exfoliate manually to deal with peeling: As fun as pulling sheets of skin off your body is, and it is, you don’t necessary want to deal with peeling. While scrubs aren’t the best for your skin desperate times call for desperate measures. While you’re in the shower go at the peeling areas with a textured mitt (available at the drug or dollar store) and a cheap facial scrub. Pay special attention to the peeling edges and beyond, rinse and repeat. After you get out really go at the area with a towel and your hands. You’ll see the bits roll up on your hands as you go. I think that removes even more than the scrub stage but maybe that’s what loosened it. Your goal is to get as much of the peel off as possible here. You may be patchy and multi colored for a bit but you might as well move through this stage as fast as possible. If you got a really bad burn like me last you be prepared because you might peel twice so keep up with this and the next tip.
Moisturize to prevent peeling: As soon as you get out of the tub and exfoliate like a mad person add a thick layer of moisturizer ASAP. It basically makes the peeling bits look better and makes your color look a bit better too. Reapplying through out the day can also buy you a few hours before it’s time to exfoliate again. If you do get the dreaded second peel take heart that moisturizer will probably totally take care of it.
Sunburns should be prevented for so, so many reasons like skin damage, wrinkles, skin cancer and looking like a peeling lobster for well over a week of summer. But they sometimes do happen and sometimes they’re bad! I hope you don’t get one this year but if you do I hope this helps! How did you get your worst sunburn ever? Do you have any tips for me because more than likely it’s just around the corner. Leave it in the comments below.