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How to Treat a Sunburn

By Mercedes Taylor

With a love for cosmetics from a young age, my curiosity knew that there was much more to the goop inside the jar than meets the eye. I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Analytical Chemistry and moved to California to chase my dreams of becoming a cosmetic chemist, passionate about developing results-driven skincare. Now, I am the Product Innovation Manager for Youth To The People. My primary experience is in research and development, with a focus on both sustainability and the formulation of skincare, bringing natural ingredients to the forefront of the cosmetics market. I’m here to answer all of your skincare questions.

Question: What happens to your skin when you get too much sun?

Answer: Our skin, the largest organ in our body, protects our insides from the outside environment, including stressors, disease, pollution, heat, cold, and the sun. The sun is a huge source of energy that does so many beautiful things for us and our Earth, but the sun’s ultraviolet radiation can also wreak havoc on our skin. When exposed to the sun, our skin warns or protects us against its potentially dangerous effects. So what happens to your skin when you get too much sun?  

The sun radiates ultraviolet rays with specific electromagnetic wavelengths, UVA and UVB, that pass through the ozone layer. Both, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, are the proven causes of skin cancer. UVA is ultraviolet radiation that causes deep damage to our skin—it is the longest ultraviolet wavelength and has the most tangible effects on our skin. UVB radiation, which has a shorter wavelength than UVA, causes the skin to burn, and the effects are pretty much immediate: the skin becomes hot to touch, turns red, becomes inflamed, and may even blister. UVA rays will dehydrate the skin, break down collagen and elastin, and cause wrinkles and dark spots, or hyperpigmentation, to form over time. 

Want to learn how to get rid of dark spots? Click here.

The effects of sun exposure are cumulatives, so protection is paramount. But if you do get a bad sunburn, take extra precautions before going out, including driving in your car, going on a hike, sitting on your patio, and even staying indoors, as a means of protecting yourself from irreparable damage. Wear clothes that keep your skin covered or be sure to slather on extra sunscreen. 

When showering, it's important to use cool or warm, not hot, water and to be gentle when cleansing the exposed area, avoiding exfoliation to the area, even after the skin begins to peel. That peeling is a sign of deep damage, so protecting that area with an antioxidant lotion will help. 

Moisturizing is KEY at every stage post-sun exposure. Lightweight aloe gels are ideal as they both cool and hydrate the skin without being occlusive; heavy creams may cause the heat from the sunburn to become trapped near the skin, preventing its ability to heal properly, so only use those after the burn has healed. 

It’s scary but true: you can never really undo the effects of a bad sunburn, or any amount of sun exposure. UV rays cause damage at the cellular level, so always protect yourself with a broad spectrum sunscreen and remember to reapply every two hours!