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Young mother applying sunblock cream on her baby boy at the beach||sun safety tips

Sun Protection: Keeping Your Family's Skin Safe

Overexposure to the sun has many adverse effects, most obviously visible acute injury (sunburn), but immunosuppression can also occur. Chronic overexposure may cause wrinkling, pigment changes, and damage to DNA. The latter is a more serious consequence in that it can precipitate different types of skin cancer.

Limit Sun Exposure by Using Sunscreen and Protective Clothing

The first thing is to limit your amount of sun exposure. Sunburns can occur in as little as 15-30 minutes. The worst time of the day to be out in the sun is during the noon hour. When you are in the sun for an extended period of time, apply sunscreen, wear light cloth cotton clothing that covers most of your skin and spend plenty of time in the shade. Sunglasses and large hats that cover the ears and nose are perfect sun protection items.

How Do You Know What SPF Level you Need?

All commercially available sunscreens include agents that absorb a specific type of UV light or some combination of wavelengths. The abbreviation SPF, or sun protection factor, is commonly advertised on sunscreen products. SPF is the ratio of the time required to produce minimal skin reddening when protected by a sunscreen to the time required to produce the same reddening without the sunscreen.

Many factors decrease the effectiveness of the sunscreen, including wind, heat, humidity and altitude. The SPF does not provide any information on protection against UVA radiation, and long-term UVA damage can occur with repeated sunburns. Sunscreen is not typically applied consistently to the skin, and therefore does not often achieve the claimed SPF. Because of this inconsistency, multiple applications may be necessary to maintain protection during prolonged exposure. Also do not forget to apply sun protection to your lips. Every year I see 3-4 people that have severe sunburns to the lips because they did not apply sunscreen to these areas.

How Should I Treat a Sunburn?

There's no fast-fix sunburn treatment. Once you have sunburn, the damage is done, although it may take 12 to 24 hours after sun exposure to know the full extent and severity of sunburn, and several days or more for your skin to begin to heal. Apply cold compresses, such as a towel dampened with cool water, to the affected skin. Or take a cool bath. Apply aloe or moisturizing cream to the affected skin. Avoid products containing alcohol, which can further dry out skin.

Beware of sunburn treatment products containing anesthetics, such as benzocaine. There's little evidence that these products are effective. In some cases, they may even irritate the skin. Benzocaine has been linked to a rare but serious, sometimes deadly, condition that decreases the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry. Don't use benzocaine in children younger than age 2 without supervision from a health care professional, as this age group has been the most affected. If you're an adult, never use more than the recommended dose of benzocaine and consider talking with your dermatologist.

If blisters form, don't break them. You'll only slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection. If needed, lightly cover blisters with gauze. If needed, take anti-inflammatory medication, such as aspirin (except in children) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) — according to the label instructions until redness and soreness subside. Don't give children or teenagers aspirin. It may cause Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease. Within a few days, the affected area may begin to peel. This is simply your body's way of getting rid of the top layer of damaged skin.

How To Handle a Severe Sunburn

Severe sunburn covers a large portion of your body with blisters. It is accompanied by a high fever or severe pain. Severe sunburn doesn't begin to improve within a few days . Patient who suffer from this may need to be admitted to the hospital or burn treatment, where they are re-hydrated with IV fluids and given medication to control their pain. If your case is severe enough, an oral steroid therapy may be prescribed for several days. Steroid creams placed on the skin show minimal to no benefit.

If you receive a severe sunburn and need medical attention, contact your doctor.

Original post date: June, 2011. Revised: Aug., 2019.

CHI Health Primary Care Team
CHI Health Primary Care Team

These blogs were written by the CHI Health Primary Care Team.

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