Back to Blog

Avoiding Sunburn: the ABCs of Sun Safety

Published on Jun. 23, 2021

Hot weather, clear skies, and long days make it easy to spend hours in the sun. Here in northern Michigan, this beach-tastic summer weather is exactly what we’ve been craving all winter.

But there’s a downside to spending too much time in the sun. Overexposure while running, swimming, and hiking can cause real damage to the skin. Sunburn is the main culprit, but lengthy sun exposure can also cause hidden skin damage. Too much sun can raise the risk for skin cancer if you don't take steps to protect yourself.

So how do you enjoy the sun without overdoing it? This breakdown should help.


Why Is Sunburn so Dangerous, Anyway? 

Sunburn hurts. It’s a painful skin reaction from absorbing too much ultraviolet (UV) light. These burns are caused by the sun’s rays but may also come from artificial sources like tanning beds. The most common symptoms of sunburn are:

  • Pain and redness
  • Swelling of the skin
  • Blisters
  • Dry, itching, and peeling skin 3 to 8 days after the burn

Over time, excessive or multiple sunburns can cause wrinkling and premature aging of the skin. Or worse. Because excessive sun exposure is actually the leading cause of skin cancer. Too much sun combined with these genetic or lifestyle factors make us more likely to develop skin cancer in later years:

  • Fair skin, moles, or freckles
  • A family history of skin cancer
  • Multiple blistering sunburns

“Skin cancer is by far the most common of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S.,” says Dr. Jennifer Lawhorn, Oncologist and Hematologist at Munson Healthcare OMH Cancer & Infusion Center. “While melanoma accounts for only 1% of skin cancer diagnoses, it causes the majority of skin cancer deaths. The rates of melanoma have been rising for the past 30 years. You can lower your risk for skin cancer by protecting your skin from harmful UV rays.”


How to Prevent Sunburn

So what’s an easy way to avoid sunburn and lower the risk of developing skin cancer? Follow these ABCs of sun safety:

A
Away

Stay away from the sun in the middle of the day. UV rays are strongest during summer months when the sun is directly overhead. This is normally between 10 am and 4 pm.

B
Block

Block the sun’s rays using SPF 30 or higher sunscreen. Apply the lotion 30 minutes before going outside and reapply often during the day. Use broad-spectrum sunscreens that block the greatest amount of the sun’s rays.

C
Cover up

Cover up using protective clothing, such as a long sleeve shirt and hat when in the sun. Use clothing with a tight weave to keep out as much sunlight as possible. Sunglasses and hats with brims are important. Clothing rated with UPF (UV protection factor) can also be worn.

Using sunblock and sunscreen correctly is important to protect the skin. Here are some tips:

  • Choose a broad-spectrum product that filters out both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. More expensive sunscreen does not always mean it is better.
  • Use a waterproof or water-resistant sunscreen.
  • Use an SPF of 15 or 30. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen with SPF of 30 or higher while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an SPF of at least 15 up to SPF 50. High SPF sunscreens protect from burning for longer periods than sunscreens with a lower SPF.
  • Apply sunscreens to all exposed areas of skin, including easily overlooked areas. These include the rims of the ears, the lips, the back of the neck, and tops of the feet. Apply the sunscreen very carefully on the face to avoid the area around the eyes.
  • Use sunscreens for all children older than six months. It doesn’t matter what type of skin or complexion your child has. All skin types need protection from UV rays. 
  • Watch for ingredients that may irritate your skin or cause an allergic reaction. 
  • Apply sunscreens 30 minutes before going out into the sun to give it time to work. Put on a thick layer and reapply every two hours after being in the water or after sweating.
  • Avoid tanning beds and salons. Most tanning beds and salons use UVA bulbs. Research has shown that UVA rays may contribute to premature aging of the skin and skin cancer.
  • Keep children younger than six months out of the sun if possible. Dress your child in lightweight clothing that covers most surface areas of skin. 
     

Treating a Sunburn

If you or your child gets a sunburn, these tips can help ease symptoms:

  • Take a cool bath or use cool compresses on the sunburned area.
  • Use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease discomfort and fever. Be sure to follow the directions on the container.
  • Moisturizer, aloe gel, hydrocortisone cream, or a topical pain reliever on the sunburned skin may help.
  • If your burn produces blisters, don't break them open. They can get infected.
  • Stay out of the sun until the burn is healed.
  • Drink extra fluid for several days to prevent dehydration. 

Specific treatment for a nasty sunburn depends on the severity. In general, call a healthcare provider if:

  • The sunburn forms painful blisters.
  • You or your child has symptoms of heat stress like fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, or feeling faint
  • Your baby is younger than one year and gets a sunburn.

Need help? Ask a Nurse

Hopefully this information keeps you safe from sunburns all summer. But if you do end up overdoing it, and you’re concerned about your burn, talk it over with a nurse.

Munson Healthcare’s Ask-A-Nurse hotline is available at no charge from 7 am to 11 pm daily. Our nursing team can provide instructions for self care at home or help you determine whether your symptoms are severe enough to see a physician. Call 231-935-0951 to talk about your sunburn or any other health-related topic.

Ask-a-Nurse   231-935-0951