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Sunburn: accidentally got it? Here's what to do

June 14th 2021 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment


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Applied SPF liberally but still been caught out? Here’s how to deal with sunburn in the short and long term for maximum damage limitation

In an ideal world, we’d all be hyper disciplined with our high factor sunscreen usage, reapply said sunscreen often and stay in the shade during peak hours of sun. A sun protection utopia is all very well, but who hasn’t had the best of intentions yet still come away from the park/beach/back garden with a slither of sunburn across the shoulders or a fried parting because you've missed a bit or simply forgotten to top up.

The main cause of sunburn is simply not topping up often enough, warns Dr Maryam Zamani, founder of MZ Skin “You should aim to reapply your SPF every two hours or so, depending on the circumstance. If you are in direct sunlight, sweating, water sports and swimming can remove the much-needed sunscreen, so you should re-apply sooner if needed. Most often than not, not reapplying sunscreen is usually the main factor of sunburn.”

If you’ve been caught red-handed, so to speak, here’s not only how to deal, but prevent future burning episodes too. After all, being Captain Sensible in the sun from now on is the best anti-ageing strategy there is.

What can you do about sunburn?

You’ve caught the sun - what exactly does that mean for your skin? Consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto explains what your skin is undergoing when it burns:

“Sunburn is an acute reaction in the skin that follows excessive overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. It causes direct damage to DNA resulting in inflammation and death of skin cells. The risk is higher in equatorial areas or at altitude, particularly in those with fair skin types. Sunburn in childhood or adolescence can double the risk of developing melanoma in later life. In addition, one of the biggest causes of premature ageing is sun damage, and this is visible in fine lines, wrinkles, blemishes freckles and other discolouration, which all result in an undesirable complexion.”

All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, but you can improve your dermatological prospects post-sunburn by instigating some SOS measures. Here’s Dr Anjali’s to-do list:

Take cover

“If you’ve accidentally burned your skin in the sun, cover up the affected areas and stay in the shade until your sunburn has healed. Wear loose cotton clothing that allows your skin to “breathe” over the sunburnt areas."


“Apply a cool compress, for example, a towel dampened with cool water for 15 minutes, or take a cool bath or shower. Aim to keep the temperature just below lukewarm and make sure the shower has a gentle flow of water rather than being on full power. If blisters are starting to develop, then a bath is preferable.”

After-shower first-aid

“Do not rub your skin with a towel, but gently pat it dry when you get out. After a bath or shower, use an unperfumed cream or lotion to soothe the skin. This is necessary to reduce the appearance of peeling, and you may need to continue this after-shower routine for several weeks. Gels or lotions that contain aloe vera or soy can be beneficial in calming the skin- for instance, aloe vera not only has a cooling effect but also acts as an anti-inflammatory. Be wary of using creams or lotions that contain petroleum, benzocaine or lidocaine, as these can trap heat in the skin or cause local skin irritation.”

MORE GLOSS: The best aftersun for soothing scorched skin

On the spot relief

“Using a weak steroid cream such as 0.5-1 per cent hydrocortisone for 48 hours may decrease the pain and swelling caused by sunburn and speed up the healing process, however this is best avoided in small children.”

Painkillers for sunburn

“If you’re in pain, analgesia or painkillers can help to relieve this and reduce the inflammation caused by sunburn. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen are ideal and should be continued for a period of at least 48 hours if there are no contraindications. Paracetamol will help with pain but has little effect on inflammation.”

Seeing a doctor for sunburn

“If you’re at all concerned about the possible damage the sun has done to your skin, make an appointment to see your dermatologist who can assess and advise you appropriately.”

Sunburned face? Keep your skincare really basic

Dr Zamani weighs in here: “If you are dealing with sunburn, on your face, the best advice is to keep your skincare routine basic. I would recommend the use of gentle cleansers, products for sensitive skin and hydrating products." She recommends a hydrating face mist that's anti-inflammatory (such as MZ Skin Anti-Pollution Hydrating Mist, £55) "This will not only work to keep your face nice and cool but will also work on repairing the skin's natural barrier.”

MORE GLOSS: Best barrier-building. microbiome face mists

How to minimise the long-term impact of sunburn

Sadly, where sunburn is concerned, we don’t have many cards to play, as consultant dermatologist Dr Emma Wedgeworth underlines:

“Sunburn isn’t just a nuisance, it’s a warning. We know that just five or more sunburns in your life can double your risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. We are living longer and travelling more than ever before so we need to look after our skin from an early age.”

According to a survey of 364 UK residents by the British Skin Foundation, 85 per cent of people admitted to having been sunburnt three or more times in their lifetime, while 10 per cent didn’t wear an SPF higher than 30 when abroad (now accepted as the ‘base level’ for SPF), and a fifth of people neglected to reapply sunscreen at regular intervals or after swimming.

To add to the pain, the results of a survey of 2000 UK women by hair and scalp care brand Philip Kingsley revealed that 26 per cent have experienced scalp sunburn, with 76 per cent leaving scalps unprotected when on holiday abroad.

Clearly we have work to do where sun safety habits are concerned, but if you’ve been sunburnt in the past, can anything be done to limit resultant accelerated ageing, sun spots, sagging, pigmentation and a compromised skin barrier? Consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Hextall summarises your options:

“If you’re suffering the effects of long-term overexposure to UV radiation, such as premature ageing with dry, loose, dull, wrinkled and hyperpigmented skin, these problems can be tackled with a variety of methods including skin peels, micro-needling and laser treatment. I recommend these treatments at the end of summer, although do bear in mind that even though the sun’s rays are less intense as we go into autumn, UVA levels are still significant and will continue to damage skin, so don’t forget your daily SPF even through those dark winter months.”

The telltale signs of UV damage can take decades to rise to the surface.

Dr Anjali goes into more detail on the treatment front:

“The first and safest thing to do when looking to treat UV damage is to visit a dermatologist for a proper, professional opinion. In terms of treatment, IPL (Intense Pulsed Light Therapy) can be used to treat everything from pigmentation to fine lines and uneven skin tone – it’s a great option for those who want significant, long-lasting changes but without going the whole hog with laser. This isn’t one for those with olive and darker skin tones, however, as it won’t work effectively due to increased amounts of natural pigmentation in the skin.

For more targeted skincare concerns such as sunspots and slowing down the ageing caused by skin damage, a laser treatment such as fractionated erbium:yag and Icon 1540 resurfacing laser will target specific structures in the skin and induce controlled wounds, encouraging the skin cells to repair them. Speak to a dermatologist about the different laser options and what will work best for you.”

In addition, bear in mind that the telltale signs of UV damage can take decades to rise to the surface. Dr Anjali confirms the old chestnut that prevention really is cure, especially in the case of age spots:

“Dark spots (known as pigmentation) are caused by sun exposure and specifically UVA rays, which penetrate deep into your skin and cause an uneven skin tone across several tell-tale ageing areas, such as the face, hands, décolletage and shoulder area. When our skin comes into contact with UVA, pigment cells (melanocytes) are stimulated to manufacture the pigment melanin, causing us to tan. Sunspots can take up to 10-20 years just to develop, which is why protection from sun exposure is so important from a young age.”

Encouragingly, studies show that people who use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher daily show 24 per cent less skin ageing than those who do not use sunscreen daily, so it’s never too late to get cracking, although the higher the SPF, the better the prospects for your skin. From a health point of view, it’s also imperative to remember that rates of skin cancer are increasing faster than any other type of cancer- as well as keeping an eye on signs of premature skin ageing, don’t neglect mole checks. Consultant dermatologist and dermatological surgeon Dr Bav Shergill highlights what to look out for:

“The best way to detect skin cancer is to check your skin regularly. Look out for moles or patches of skin that are growing, changing shape, developing new colours, inflamed, bleeding, crusting, red around the edges, particularly itchy or behaving unusually. Remember – if in doubt, get it checked straight away.”

A final ray of hope where alleviating sun damage is concerned is offered by a new study that appears to show that participants with a higher vitamin D level than a control group taking a placebo suffered less inflammation, a reduction in skin redness and a significant expression of genes relating to skin barrier repair post-sunburn. More studies are needed, but researchers are hopeful that the full profile of vitamin D’s immunotherapeutic properties will soon come to light, particularly in terms of the anti-inflammatory effect that vitamin D appears to exert on humans. Yet more incentive to take a vitamin D supplement all year round, not simply when the sun don’t shine…

Want to know what else vitamin D can do for you? From strengthening muscles to warding off dementia, here’s 10 things you may not know about vitamin D

Follow Dr Anjali @DrAnjaliMahto, Dr Emma Wedgeworth @DrEmWedgeworth and Anna @AnnaMaryHunter

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