Dos and don’ts of at-home sunburn treatment

This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Summer is coming to a close, but if you’re planning one more beach or pool trip, it’s important to use sunscreen and seek medical attention if sunburns are severe.

“As we resume normal summertime activities amidst the pandemic, we must also reinstate good sun-safety and sunburn care habits,” said Dr. Taryn Travis, a burn surgeon with MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Sunburns typically behave like a first-degree burn, meaning only the outer layer of skin has been damaged. These can be painful but have minimal risk of infection or scar formation. However, more severe sunburns can cause deeper damage. These second-degree burns are characterized by blisters or breaks in the skin. If you get a sunburn with these signs, you should seek care from a doctor who specializes in burn treatment, Dr. Travis said.

Patients should also reach out to a doctor if they experience fatigue, nausea, dizziness or a headache as a result of a sunburn, as these may indicate dehydration or other systemic problems.

At MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Burn Center – the only adult burn treatment center in the Washington, D.C. area – the staff can quickly and accurately diagnose the type of burn, provide treatment and adapt care for any other medical conditions, Dr. Travis said.

Treatment is vital because if blistered or broken skin isn’t cared for, there is a risk of infection, scarring and permanent skin color changes, Dr. Travis said.

Another potential consequence of sunburns is skin cancer. It is the most common cancer in the United States, and one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

It’s important to develop good sunscreen routines because sunburns during childhood or adolescence can increase the odds of getting melanoma later in life. The AAD found five or more blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 increases one’s melanoma risk by 80% and non-melanoma skin cancer risk by 68%.

Sunburns can happen though, and there are several steps you should take when caring for sunburns, as well as some things you should avoid.

Do:

  • Run cool or room-temperature water over the burn to soothe the pain.
  • Keep the skin clean using soap and water.
  • Moisturize the burn area using non-dyed, non-perfumed lotions, such as Aquaphor or Aveeno.
  • Take an over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen, at the first sign of sunburn to reduce pain and inflammation, as long as you don’t have any health reasons to not use these medications.
  • Seek professional care if you think you have an infection or severe sunburn.

Don’t:

  • Put ice on the sunburn. It can lead to frostbite.
  • Turn to foods, beverages or condiments (such as mustard, ketchup, butter and honey) for relief. They will not do your skin any favors.
  • Apply unusual chemicals. Things like gel from air fresheners, rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide will irritate your skin even more.
  • Take antibiotics or use antibiotic ointments — especially if you’ve never used these types of treatments before. If you put them on irritated skin, you can get a skin rash, which will worsen the burn.
  • Get more sun. Don’t re-expose the burn to the sun while it’s healing.

Sunburn prevention is key any time you head outdoors, Dr. Travis said.

“After spending more time indoors than usual during the past year and a half, many people are a little out of practice when it comes to sun protection,” Dr. Travis said.

She recommends using a mineral-based sunscreen in the 30 – 50 SPF range that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. All skin tones should apply sunscreen every two hours, she added. And be sure to check the expiration date on that sunscreen – it will need to be replaced if it’s beyond its expiration date.

Take extra care to apply sunscreen to some of the commonly forgotten areas: ears, neck, tip of the nose and the tops of your hands and feet, Dr. Travis said. Also, look for extra coverage when you can – clothing like hats and sleeves can “go a long way in protecting your skin. Wear both as much as possible,” she said.

For those with diabetic neuropathy, which alters the sensations in your hands and feet, keep a close eye on the skin on your hands and feet since you won’t be able to feel the burn and sense the danger as much.

Practice caution when walking on hot sand and pavement barefoot. You can damage your skin in less than a minute with hot contact, Dr. Travis said.

If you have a worrisome sunburn, it’s best to see a doctor, Dr. Travis said.

“People often avoid professional medical treatment for a sunburn because they’re embarrassed or think it’s not a big deal, but large surface-area burns or blisters are always worth seeking care for,” she said. “We can provide the care you need and educate you on how to prevent complications moving forward.”

MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Burn Center works to provide patients with wound care and customized health solutions for those with medical conditions such as diabetes, vascular insufficiency, or heart, lung, or kidney problems.

The Burn Center team works together to make sure patients are supported and heal effectively, Dr. Travis said.

“As part of the MedStar Health system, patients have streamlined access to a collaborative team of providers who will deliver all the care they need under one roof,” Dr. Travis said.

Read more about sunburn treatments in a blog post on the MedStar Washington Hospital Center website.

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