By Dr. Mercola
If you are physically active and usually spend a fair amount of time under the sun without following the guidelines for safe sun exposure, you probably have had a taste of how painful and bothersome a sunburn can be.
Sun exposure can only be therapeutic when it's done in appropriate and measured timeframes. Too much of it provides no benefit and can only result in sunburn, which is an inflammatory response of your body from overexposing your skin to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun. Although both UVA and UVB can cause tanning and burning, UVB does so far more rapidly.
However, remember that UVB is what you want to get from healthy sun exposure. When UVB strikes the surface of your skin, your skin converts a cholesterol derivative into vitamin D3. Let's discuss this in detail before we delve on the signs, symptoms, and natural treatment of sunburn.
Why Sun Exposure Is Important
Safe sun exposure can do wonders for your health. First of all, sunlight allows your skin to produce generous amounts of vitamin D, a steroid hormone, which is without a doubt, leagues apart from other known nutrients in your body. Receptors that respond to vitamin D have been found in almost every single cell from brains to bones, which explains its massive health influence.
The benefits of vitamin D are simply immeasurable. In fact, correcting a vitamin D deficiency may cut your risk of dying in half, according to an analysis of more than 10,000 individuals.1 This one-of-a-kind nutrient is known to:
- Support your cardiovascular health
- Enhance your muscle strength
- Help produce optimal blood pressure levels
- Help maintain a robust immune system
- Help keep bones and teeth strong and healthy
Sun exposure comes with a bucket of additional perks, too. New evidence presented in the April-June 2012 issue of Dermato-Endocrinology confirmed and cited health benefits of sensible sun exposure apart from vitamin D production.2 These include:
- Improving mood and energy levels
- Regulating melatonin production
- Synchronizing your circadian rhythm
- Protecting against melanoma and UV damage
- Suppressing symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Relieving pain from fibromyalgia
- Treating neonatal jaundice
- Treating seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
According to Dr. Stephanie Seneff, senior scientist at MIT and conducting research there for over three decades, when you expose your skin to the sun, it synthesizes high amounts of cholesterol sulfate, which is very important for cardiovascular health.
Unfortunately, instead of taking advantage of the sun as a profoundly beneficial, wildly available, and incredibly free health resource from nature, people avoid exposure to sunlight like the plague. This is due to the false recommendations of public health agencies and several skincare professionals, which more often than not are funded by the sunscreen industry.
Safe and Adequate Sun Exposure
When it comes to getting adequate vitamin D produced in your skin and steering clear from sunburn, optimal and safe sun exposure is the key.
One common myth is that occasional exposure of your face and hands to sunlight is sufficient for vitamin D nutrition when in reality this is inadequate exposure to move your vitamin D levels to a healthier range.
As a general rule of thumb, to optimize your levels, you need to expose large portions of your skin to the sun – including your legs, back, arms, and chest – until your skin turns the lightest shade of pink, which can be after 20 minutes or longer. At that point you've reached your skin's equilibrium or saturation point, and your body will not produce any more vitamin D.
You can create as much as 20,000 units of vitamin D per day if you have enough of your uncovered skin exposed to the sun. The beauty of getting your vitamin D from healthy exposures to sunshine is that your body has this built-in feedback loop that prevents you from overdosing on the nutrient.
It's important to note that the sun can either be helpful or harmful depending on what type of ultraviolet light you're getting.
The ultraviolet light from the sun comes in two main wavelengths:
- Ultraviolet A (UVA) - Considered the unhealthy wavelength because it penetrates your skin more deeply and cause more free radical damage.
- Ultraviolet B (UVB) - The healthy wavelength that helps your skin produce vitamin D. Both UVA and UVB can cause tanning and burning, although UVB does so far more rapidly.
Ironically, while bad UVA rays are constantly available all the time – all hours of day light and throughout the entire year – good UVB rays are low in morning and evening, and high at midday or solar noon, making it the most optimal time for vitamin D production and ironically the time in which most mainstream experts warn against.
There are several factors that may block UVB and in turn hinders the process of vitamin D production in your skin:
- Weather Conditions – The less clouds, the better. Agents like sand, snow, and water may also influence UV radiation. Air pollution, smog, and ozone block UVB as well.
- Latitude and Altitude – The further north you are, the less UVB there is. The higher up you are, the more UVB reaches you. This also explains why you get burned easily without you ever noticing it when you're up in the mountains.
- Season – While spring is the best time to start priming your skin, you should limit exposure during summer to avoid solar radiation. This obviously does not occur in the winter in the United States. But the sun's rays are also impeded during a fair amount of the year for people living in temperate climates.
- Time of Day – The optimal time to be in the sun for vitamin D production is as near to solar noon as possible. That would be between roughly 10:00 am and 2:00 pm.
- Use of Sunscreen and Clothing – If you're sunbathing for vitamin D, sunscreens are completely unnecessary. Studies show that sunscreen with SPF 15 can block about 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays.3
Warning: there is no additional benefit to staying in the sun any longer. You're only increasing your chances of getting burned, which is something you definitely want to avoid. Also, the risk of sunburn is higher in people who have a lighter complexion, because they have a lower concentration of melanin in their skin compared to those with darker skin tones.
Sunburn: Signs and Symptoms
Frequently, the first telltale signs of sunburn include:4
These symptoms are not immediately visible after a few hours from exposure and are most painful in the first 24 hours.
- Redness of the skin or erythema
- Skin that's warm or hot to the touch
- Discomfort when skin gets touched or rubbed against clothes
- Peeling or flaking of the skin
- Extreme dryness or wrinkling of the skin
Just like ordinary burns, sunburns are also classified into three degrees: first, second, and third. First- and second-degree sunburns are fairly temporary and are manageable at home. In third-degree sunburns, infection-prone skin breakouts, fever, and chills can occur, and immediate serious medical attention is highly recommended..
How to Protect Your Skin from Sunburn
It's important to understand that the benefits of sun exposure completely outweigh its risks, which is why totally avoiding the sun is unnecessary, and unwise. To continuously enjoy the positive effects of sun exposure without getting burned, I recommend following these safety tips:
- Protect your face and eyes by wearing a wide-brimmed hat or a cap. The skin around these areas is much thinner than other areas of your body and is more at risk for cosmetic photo damage and premature wrinkling.
- Moisturize your skin naturally. Before sunbathing, apply organic coconut oil on the exposed areas of your skin. This will not only moisturize your skin to prevent dryness, but will also give you additional metabolic benefits.
- Limit your initial exposure and slowly work your way up. If you are a fairly light-skinned individual who tends to burn easily, limit your initial exposure to a few minutes, especially if it is in the middle of summer. The more tanned your skin will get, and/or the more tanned you want to become, the longer you can stay in the sun.
If it is early or late in the season and/or you are a dark-skinned individual, you could likely safely have 30 minutes on your initial exposure. If you are deeply pigmented and your immediate ancestors are from Africa, India, or the Middle East, it is possible you may not even have to worry about the timing of your exposure.
- Build an internal sunscreen with beneficial antioxidants. Astaxanthin – a potent antioxidant – has been found to offer effective protection against sun damage when taken as a daily supplement. It can also be used topically, as a number of topical sunscreen products contain it. Other helpful antioxidants include proanthocyanidins, resveratrol, and lycopene.
The amount of antioxidants you get from your diet plays a major role in how you effectively avoid sunburn.5 The more antioxidants you have in your skin, the lower your risk of getting burned. They act as an internal type of sunscreen and allow you to maximize your sun exposure while minimizing the risks.
Dietary sources of effective antioxidants include whole fresh vegetables and fruits such as raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries. You may also try goji berries, but avoid the juice. Manage your fruit consumption to avoid the dangers of excess fructose.
Vitamins A and C are also important – your cells use them to regulate both light absorption and protection against sun overexposure. Make sure that you have this built-in protection (especially if you are very light-skinned), since you want to expose at least 40 percent of your body to sunlight for at least 20 minutes each day.
Home Remedy Recipes to Treat and Soothe Sunburns
Instead of taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications or painkillers, which may only worsen your condition, go natural with these home remedies:6, 7
- Aloe vera - One of the best remedies to help repair your skin, it is loaded with powerful glyconutrients that accelerate healing. Ideally, it is best to use the gel from a fresh plant. Cut a matured aloe vera leaf open, and a thick gel-like juice that will come out of it. Use that as a topical ointment to reduce the sting and redness of your sunburned skin. Apply it five times a day until your condition improves.
- Potatoes - Potatoes have starch-based compounds that may help soothe sunburn. Chop an uncooked potato into slices, and rub or pat down a piece on your sore sunburned spots. You can also try grating a cold raw potato and applying it as a poultice.
- Honey - The ancient Egyptians were known to use honey as a topical salve for skin burns. In fact, The Holistic Pediatrician author Kathi Kemper, M.D. says, "Studies suggest it may work better than some antibiotic creams at speeding up healing, reducing infection, and minimizing pain."
- Vinegar - The acetic acid found in vinegar is said to reduce pain, itching, and inflammation. Add a cup of cider vinegar into your bath water and soak your burned skin into it. It can also work like a natural aspirin. Simply dab a bit of white vinegar on to your sunburn for 20 minutes of instant pain relief.
- Coriander oil - For a soothing effect, use it as an essential oil by lightly rubbing it onto your sunburn.
- Green tea - Green tea's catechin and tannic acid help soothe sunburn pain. Soak a couple of tea bags in cool water. You can either use the tea bags themselves as a cold compress on the burnt areas, or wash your face gently with the cold tea extract. Studies also suggest that drinking just two cups of green tea a day can provide additional sun-protective benefits.
- Strawberries - Like green tea, berries also have tannin, which helps alleviate the sting of sunburn. Use it as a topical balm by mashing a cup of ripened strawberries and applying it on top of your sunburns. Let it stay after a few minutes, and then rinse with fresh, tepid water afterwards.
- Cucumbers - With cucumber's cooling effect, simply putting it on top of your sunburns is guaranteed to provide instant soothing effects. You can also use it as a paste by mashing it and applying it on your skin.
- Lettuce - To take advantage of lettuce's painkilling benefits, boil its leaves in water. After straining, allow the liquid to cool. Keep it chilled inside the refrigerator. Using clean organic cotton balls, carefully apply the lettuce juice over the affected area.
- Calendula - It has natural anti-inflammatory and healing properties that are especially beneficial for burns. Although there are many calendula creams sold in drugstores today, you can make your own calendula poultice using fresh calendula blossoms for faster healing of your sunburns.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Dip the affected areas into a tub of cold water to lessen the soreness and sting.
- To avoid further irritation, do not wash your sunburns with harsh soaps.
- Refrain from putting petroleum jelly on your sunburn, as it may only exacerbate the burn by blocking pores.
Can Sun Exposure Cause Melanoma Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States today. In fact, the incidence of skin cancer cases each year is higher than all other cancer combined, and has risen by more than 300 percent since 1992.9 There are three common types of skin cancer:
- Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) - This type of skin cancer starts to develop in the basal cell layer of the skin and is usually seen on the face. This is the most common type of skin cancer and is least likely to spread.
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) - It affects the squamous cells and typically appears on the face, neck, ears, lips, and backs of hands. It's more likely to grow and spread a bit more than BCC.
- Melanoma - The deadliest form of skin cancer, it begins in the melanocytes, which are the cells that produce the pigment melanin, responsible for your tan. Melanoma is most likely to spread to other parts of your body and causes more deaths than any other type of skin cancer.10 Redheads have to be particularly careful, as they appear to be genetically predisposed to developing melanoma, regardless of whether or not they spend time in the sun.
Experts say that the increasing tolls of melanoma skin cancer are due to sun exposure. But a breakthrough study in the British Journal of Dermatology suggests this apparent increase is a result of non-cancerous lesions being misclassified as stage 1 melanoma.11 In other words, people are being diagnosed with melanoma even when they have only a minimal, non-cancerous lesion, and these diagnoses are significantly skewing cancer statistics.
These unbelievable misdiagnoses have resulted in a surge of melanoma surgeries that are downright pointless. A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 90 percent of melanoma excisions end up not being melanoma at all.12
In reality, sun exposure is protective against melanoma because of the vitamin D, the most potent cancer-fighting nutrient there is, that your body produces in response to UVB. As written in the Lancet:13
"Paradoxically, outdoor workers have a decreased risk of melanoma compared with indoor workers, suggesting that chronic sunlight exposure can have a protective effect."
Should You Really Use Sunscreens?
Sunscreens effectively protect against UVB, which is the main cause of sunburn, and are classified into their level of sun protection factor or SPF:
- SPF 15 - Blocks 93 percent of UVB radiation
- SPF 30 - Blocks up to 97 percent of UVB radiation
- SPF 50 - Blocks up to 98 percent of UVB radiation
Take note: these SPFs filter out the beneficial UVB, not the cancer-causing UVA. According to Dr. Steven Q. Wang, director of dermatologic surgery and dermatology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center at Basking Ridge, New Jersey:14
"Individuals applying high-SPF sunscreens may not burn (UVB is the chief cause of sunburn), but without UVA-screening ingredients they can still receive large amounts of skin-damaging radiation."
In reality, sunscreens can do you more harm than good. By effectively preventing sunburn, which is your body's natural indicator that you've had enough sun exposure, sunscreens create a false sense of security, making you stay longer under the sun unprotected.
Sunscreens are also loaded with synthetic chemicals, which can get into your bloodstream and can cause unimaginable side effects, including hormone disruption. Even Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen vehemently refuses to use sunscreen on herself and any member of her family because of the toxic chemicals it contains. She was also reported describing sunscreens as "poison."
Safe Alternatives to Sunscreen
When asked what sunscreen is the safest, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) said: "The best sunscreen is a hat and a shirt. Zero absorption of chemicals through the skin, no questions about whether they work."15
If you have to stay under the sun for an extended period of time, make sure to wear cotton clothing. It provides up to 15 percent of SPF 15.
Opt for natural and safe alternatives that will not only protect against sunburn, but will nourish your skin as well, such as:
Stay away from chemically-laden sunscreens with these potentially toxic chemicals ingredients:
- Octyl methoxycinnamate (OCM)
- Zinc oxide
- Menthyl anthranilate
- Mexoryl SX
- Sulisobenzone (Benzophenone-4)
- Padimate O
- Nano titanium dioxide
I hope you are now better prepared with simple strategies to avoid being sunburned. If you have ever gotten a scorching sunburn even on a cloudy day, remember that it is from the deeply penetrating UVA. Since UVAs are inherently more damaging and consistently high all day, wearing a sunscreen that does not protect you from UVAs will give you virtually NO benefit. Expect only detrimental effects from the likely toxic ingredients – a deeper damage to your health.