By Dr. Mercola
You’re probably aware of the importance of vitamin D, and that proper sun exposure is the best way to keep your levels where they need to be.
Sunlight also offers many benefits beyond vitamin D production, including mood enhancement, benefits to skin diseases, melatonin regulation, protection against melanoma, and even changes in your circulatory system.
The key to reaping all of sunlight’s benefits – and none of its wrath – lies in the dose. Start out with just a few minutes of sun exposure in early spring and note how your skin reacts over the next two to four hours.
What Happens When Your Skin Gets Sunburned
You’ve probably experienced a sunburn at some point in your life, but have you ever wondered what it actually does to your skin? When your skin takes on a pinkish tint as noted above, it’s known as the “minimal erythemal dose” (MED).1
David McDaniel, M.D., FAAD, director of the Institute of Anti-Aging Research and co-director of the Hampton University Skin Of Color Research Institute, told The Huffington Post:2
“Your skin is trying to put up little umbrellas, whether it's freckles or a nice even tan… If you look at the pigment, it's like a little umbrella over the DNA, trying to protect the DNA."
If you stay in the sun too long, however, it will overtake your body’s protective mechanisms such that a burn occurs. This can be minor, affecting only the top epidermis layer of your skin, or more severe, reaching the second layer, or dermis. In addition to pink or red skin, your skin may feel hot to the touch, be painful and itchy, and may swell.
Blisters may also appear and may be accompanied by headache, fever, chills, and fatigue in severe cases. As part of the healing process, the top layer of damaged skin will peel off, and it can take several days or more for a bad sunburn to completely heal.
How to Treat a Sunburn Naturally
If you accidently spend too much time in the sun and end up with a sunburn, one of the most effective first-aid strategies I know of is to apply raw aloe vera gel topically to the burn. It's loaded with powerful glyconutrients that accelerate healing.
Research has shown applying aloe to sunburn offers both anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects, likely due to its antioxidant components.3
Aloe is also easy to grow if you live in a southern location, and is an excellent medicinal plant to keep in your home garden (or keep one in a pot on your balcony). You need to be careful of the species, as many have very flat leaves with virtually no gel.
The best plants have the thickest leaves. If you don’t have your own plant, you may be able to find fresh whole aloe leaves at your local grocery store.
They are relatively easy to propagate and you can turn one plant into six or more in under a year. I now have about 300 aloe vera plants on my property, which I use both for oral and topical use.
After cutting the leaf from the plant, cut off the prickly edges. Then, using a peeler, peel the skin off one side. You can now rub the jelly side directly on your sunburn. For a demonstration, see the video above. Apply it five times a day until your condition improves. In addition to fresh aloe, you can try:4
- Cold compress: Applying cold compresses to the sunburned area can help lessen the burning pain. Try soaking a soft cloth in milk or egg whites, as the proteins will help coat and calm the burn. Soaking the compress in green tea can help reduce inflammation.
- Cool shower or bath: This will help you cool down, soothe your skin, and also remove any salt water, chlorine, or sand that could be irritating your skin.
- Moisturize: Sunburned skin lacks moisture, so applying a natural moisturizer like coconut oil can help your skin immensely.
- Stay hydrated: A sunburn can leave you dehydrated, so be sure to stay properly hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Young children, in particular, need to be carefully monitored for signs of dehydration.
To avoid further irritation, do not wash sunburned skin with harsh soaps, and avoid applying petroleum jelly, as it may exacerbate the burn. It is also a petrochemical that is loaded with toxins you don't want in your system.
If you don’t have aloe vera on hand, there are plenty of other topical food-based remedies that can also help ease the pain and speed healing. For example, you can try:
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 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. Just make sure you're using high-quality honey, such as raw organic honey, or Manuka honey, which has very potent medicinal qualities. The "Grade A" type honey you find in most grocery stores is more akin to high fructose corn syrup, which is more likely to increase infection, and should not be used to treat topical wounds. Vinegar - The acetic acid found in vinegar is said to reduce pain, itching, and inflammation. Add a cup of apple cider vinegar into your bath water and soak in it. It can also work like a natural aspirin. Simply dab a bit of white vinegar on to your sunburn for 20 minutes for instant pain relief. 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. Cucumbers - With cucumber's cooling effect, simply putting it on top of your sunburn 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. Coriander oil - For a soothing effect, use it as an essential oil by lightly rubbing it, diluted, onto your sunburn.
Sunscreen Isn’t Always Your Best Choice of Sunburn Protection
There are times when a safe, natural sunscreen is useful, such as if you work outdoors all day, are planning a trip to an outdoor theme park or water park, or if you need to protect sensitive areas of your face (like around your eyes). However, if you apply sunscreen every time you’re out in the sun, you’ll block your body’s ability to produce vitamin D.
By avoiding the sun, or blocking your vitamin D production by over-applying sunscreen when you are in the sun, your risk for vitamin D deficiency skyrockets, which increases your odds of developing melanoma and a multitude of other diseases. Further, most sunscreens on the market are not safe. Two-thirds of the sunscreens analyzed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) did not work well or contained potentially hazardous ingredients.5 This included many of the most popular brands on the market.
One of the most troublesome ingredients found in the majority of sunscreens is oxybenzone. Its primary function is to absorb ultraviolet light. However, oxybenzone is also believed to cause hormone disruptions and cell damage that may provoke cancer.
Further, sunscreen products may actually increase the speed at which malignant cells develop and spread skin cancer because they contain vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol, and retinyl palmitate. The problem occurs when this form of vitamin A is exposed to the sun (as opposed to when it is used in night cream, for example), which is why sunscreens that contain it should be avoided.
In lieu of the skin-penetrating hormone-disrupting chemicals like oxybenzone, safer sunscreens tend to use non-nanoparticle sized zinc- and titanium-based mineral ingredients, which block the sun's rays without penetrating your skin. However, when you'll be in the sun for longer periods, you can simply cover up with clothing, a hat, or shade (either natural or that you create using an umbrella, etc.).
A safe sunscreen can be applied after you've optimized your daily vitamin D production. I also recommend shielding your face from the sun daily using a safe sunscreen or a hat, as your facial skin is thin and more prone to sun damage like premature wrinkling.
Sensible Sun Exposure Is a Key Part of Healthy Living
Sunburn should be avoided but please don’t completely shun the sun to avoid getting burned. If you avoid the sun, you’ll be missing out on crucial vitamin D, as well as sunshine’s gifts that extend well beyond vitamin D production. Five of the many noteworthy properties of spending some quality time in the sun include:6
- Pain-killing (analgesic) properties
- Increased subcutaneous fat metabolism
- Regulation of human lifespan (solar cycles appear to be able to directly affect the human genome, thereby influencing lifespan)
- Daytime sun exposure improves evening alertness
- Conversion to metabolic energy (i.e. we may “ingest” energy directly from the sun, like plants do)
To continuously enjoy the positive effects of sun exposure without getting burned, I recommend following these simple 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. If it's too hot to protect your skin by covering with light clothing, and you’ll be outside for extended periods, be sure to use a natural broad-spectrum sunscreen on your skin – these products often contain zinc.
- 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 just a few minutes, especially if it is in the middle of summer. The more tanned your skin gets, the longer you can stay in the sun without burning. 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.
- Build an internal sunscreen with beneficial antioxidants. Astaxanthin, the potent antioxidant, can also be used both internally and topically to protect your skin from the sun. You can make your own lotion by adding astaxanthin to organic coconut oil, but be careful of staining your clothing as astaxanthin is a very dark red. Other helpful antioxidants include proanthocyanidins, resveratrol, and lycopene.
- Moisturize your skin naturally. Before sunbathing, apply organic coconut oil on the exposed areas of your skin (as noted above, you could add some astaxanthin to the oil for an added measure of protection). This will not only moisturize your skin to prevent dryness, but will also give you additional metabolic benefits.