Compassionate Care

Sun Safety 101

A sunburn isn’t just a temporary inconvenience – it can seriously harm your skin. Stay safe this summer, and in the event of a sunburn – it happens – know when to seek medical attention.

What is a sunburn?

A sunburn is a form of skin damage caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or artificial sources like tanning beds. UV rays penetrate the skin, damaging the cells, which leads to inflammation and the characteristic redness and peeling.

Who’s at risk?

Everyone is at risk of developing a sunburn without proper protection or from prolonged exposure. Children are typically at a higher risk of sunburn because their skin is thinner and more sensitive. According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly 60% of teenagers report at least one sunburn yearly. By comparison, only 30% of adults reported a sunburn.

Ali Fagin, M.D., FACS, a burn surgeon at Shriners Children’s Ohio, said burn patients with scarring or skin grafts need to pay special attention to sun exposure for several reasons.

“If a child has scarring from their burn injury or skin graft, UV exposure can change the appearance of the scar, changing the color and making it more noticeable,” she said. “Plus, skin that’s been grafted is thinner and more sensitive.”

Dr. Fagin added that grafted skin does not contain sweat glands, which help control the body’s temperature, so children with grafted skin may struggle to cool their bodies.

Can a sunburn require medical attention?

The National Cancer Institute reports that more than 33,000 sunburns require an emergency room visit each year. Dr. Fagin said even second and third-degree burns can occur from prolonged sun exposure. “Like any severe burn, an extreme sunburn will result in widespread blistering, darkening of the skin and intense pain,” Dr. Fagin explained. She added that severe burns may lead to permanent tissue damage and could even put people at greater risk of developing skin cancer, especially melanoma.

Which sunscreen is best?

One of the most essential elements to consider when selecting a sunscreen is SPF or sun protection factor. The number indicates how long it would take your skin to redden with sunscreen compared to no sunscreen. Dr. Fagin and the National Cancer Institute recommend using SPF 30 but caution that no sunscreen completely blocks the sun’s rays. Regardless of the SPF, it should be applied about 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied frequently, especially if you’re in the water or sweating.

“Sunscreen, when applied properly, is one of the best defenses against this type of burn,” Dr. Fagin said. “It minimizes both the short-term and long-term damage from the sun.”