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A sunburnt skin SOS guide

While prevention is key, we asked the experts how to take the sting out of a sunburn and the damage caused when catching rays catches up with you

The sun has got his hat on… so it’s time to reach for your wide-brimmed hat and, more importantly, the SPF. June 2023 was the hottest on record with the Met Office predicting that this summer temperatures will soar even higher than the record-breaking centigrades of 2022. But with the best will and skincare in the world, a day on Centre Court, an outdoor wedding or simply grabbing a jug of Pimms in the garden can get a little too toasty for your skin with too little SPF applied too infrequently and missing spots - your scalp and the tips of your ears being major culprits.

And there are some dark clouds to this according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, which estimates that just five or more sunburns can put you at a higher risk of melanoma. Alarming when you consider that 40% of people in Great Britain reported at least one case of sunburn in 2022. What’s more, research suggests that UV exposure seems to be responsible for 80% of the signs of visible facial ageing.
The sunny side? There are things you can do to soothe skin in the short term as well as limit the damage by bolstering the skin for an even stronger and brighter future. We asked the leading experts to shed some light on the issue.

What’s the best way to prevent a sunburn? 

You know the drill but it bears repeating: “Try to stay out of the sun, cover up, wear SPF 30 or above every day and reapply on sunny days - regardless of whether you are outside,” shares Etre Vous Expert and Aesthetic Doctor, Anna Hemming.

The NHS suggests applying 6-8 teaspoons of sunscreen 30 minutes before going out and again just before you head outside, reapplying every two hours and after excessive sweating and being in water and towel drying - even if the formula claims to be ‘water-resistant’.

They also advise that a wide-brimmed hat, clothes in close-weave fabrics that do not allow sunlight through and sunglasses with wraparound lenses or wide arms with the CE Mark and British Standard Mark 12312-1:2013 E can also help. As does their advice to seek shade completely between 11am-3pm.

How do you know if you have sunburn and what to expect? 

Defined as ‘hot and sore skin caused by too much sun’ that ‘may flake and peel’ and subside ‘within seven days’ – like all burns there are varying ‘degrees’ that determine severity (first, second, third, or fourth).
Hemming explains that ‘the sun’s rays have a cumulative effect on unprotected skin’.

“The sun cause inflammation as well as burns, and the more severe the burn the deeper the effect on the skin. On light skin tones you’ll notice “erythema (redness) which when pressed blanches white, and on more severe burns where the skin crusts you can be left with pain and burning.” While on deep skin tones the skin tends to darken and feel hot, sensitive and itchy.

Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme, Founder & Medical Director of London's Adonia Medical Clinic explains that “those with fair skin are generally more susceptible to sunburns and tend to develop them more quickly. The severity of a sunburn can be determined by the extent of irritation; this could be redness, blistering, and swelling. Mild sunburns usually heal within a few days to a week, while more severe sunburns may take longer, possibly up to two weeks or more.” With that in mind it’s worth reiterating that all skin ‘should be equally protected’ warns Hemming.

How to treat sunburn

In the immediate aftermath, cooling the burn and treating pain is key. “Aftersun creams, aloe vera and calamine lotion can cool, hydrate and provide relief, and if the skin is disrupted and needs protection from infection then Clinisept+ Skin is ideal.”

You don’t have to endure the discomfort either – there is no gain to being in pain. “To soothe pain and reduce inflammation from a sunburn, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen as well as applying cool compresses to the affected area. And for peeling and blisters, it's best to avoid picking the skin – just allow it to heal naturally. While drinking plenty of water can also help with hydration,” shares Ejikeme.

How to treat sun damage

The bad news is that you can’t completely reverse the damage caused by a sunburn but, as Ejikeme explains ‘you can take steps to improve the long-term health and appearance of your skin’.

So, what should you be doing post-burn to get back to healthy? “Regular use of sunscreen and proper sun protection can prevent further damage,” begins Ejikeme. “When the sunburn is healed, incorporating skincare products with antioxidants and ingredients like vitamin C and retinol may help repair some sun damage and improve skin texture and tone.”

While sun damage may be more visibly obvious on paler skin, more melanated skin tones can also dial back the damage. “Dark skin tones may be more prone to hyperpigmentation after sunburn, so it's important to avoid excessive sun exposure and use appropriate skincare products,” says Ejikeme. Think SPF daily and the likes of niacinamide, AHA’s and retinoids for hyperpigmentation.

Plus because healthy and strong skin is less likely to burn, “using barrier repair creams such as ZO Daily Power Defense helps the skin to strengthen its barriers against environmental aggressors,” adds Ejikeme.
As for treatments - there are some limitations for those with Black and brown skin: “While all skin tones can be treated with medical skincare to reduce pigmentation caused by photo damage, if sun damage causes pigmentation, there can be some limitations on treatment for dark skin tones as laser treatment is less suitable.”

Lasers are the go-to in-clinic treatment for hyperpigmentation, but micro-needling is also an option that can be performed on all skin tones.

What’s the link between sunburn and skin cancer?

Sunburns significantly increase the risk of skin cancer. “According to statistics, one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can more than double the risk of developing melanoma later in life,” Dr Ejikeme advises.

“To reduce the risk of skin cancer after a burn, it's crucial to protect your skin from further sun damage, regularly examine your skin for any changes or suspicious moles, and consult a dermatologist for regular skin check-ups.”

She adds: “While all skin types are susceptible to skin cancer, certain skin types may have a higher risk. Fair-skinned individuals with a history of sunburns or excessive sun exposure are generally at higher risk for skin cancer. However, it's important to note that skin cancer can affect individuals of all skin tones, and everyone should take appropriate sun protection measures.”

Although fair skin tones are more susceptible to skin cancer, those with more melanin need to be hyper vigilant especially considering statistics from the Skin Cancer Foundation have revealed that the estimated five-year melanoma survival rate is only 70% for Black patients versus 94% for white patients.

Anna Hemming, Aesthetic Doctor

Dr Anna Hemming MBChB BSc DFFP MRCGP is a highly respected and skilled aesthetic doctor working in London. Conference...

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