s we head into the Fourth of July holiday and peak summer sun season, we're roasting hot dogs, s'mores—and potentially our shoulders, noses and other exposed body parts, if we’re not careful.
While a slight reddening of the skin may not seem like such a big deal, that "bit of color" could be hazardous to your health: Research suggests that even having one sunburn in your lifetime could put you at increased risk of developing skin cancer. And the more sunburns you have over time, the greater your risk becomes.
So what are the best ways to recognize and treat a sunburn—and ideally prevent one from happening?
We spoke with, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., to find out.
Are all sunburns—even seemingly minor ones—bad for your skin?
Whenever you get a sunburn, your skin sustains damage due to overexposure to harmful ultraviolet light. Most sunburns are categorized as first-degree burns, meaning you’ll have redness of the skin. Some people do get painful blistering, which means it’s a second-degree burn.
Although your skin will heal, the UV light that caused the sunburn has also likely damaged the DNA within your skin cells, which can be dangerous and lead to skin cancer. Many people don’t realize that even tanning puts them at risk. And the fact is most major types of skin cancer are on the rise.
For many people, skin cancer can be disfiguring and may result in the need for surgery. For others, especially those who develop melanoma, it can be life-threatening. Even people with darker skin can develop dangerous skin cancer.
What’s the best way to treat a sunburn?
You can’t reverse the damage caused by a sunburn, but once you have a burn, you can help soothe your skin and give it time to heal. And there are a number of ways in which you can do this.
For instance, a cool shower or cool compresses can help make people feel better. It's also important to drink plenty of fluids and stay hydrated.
Most healthy people can also use over-the-counter (OTC) oral analgesic medication, like acetaminophen or an NSAID, to help alleviate pain associated with a sunburn. Just be sure to carefully read and follow the label. And it's always a good idea to check with your doctor if you're not sure what to take, or if you're feeling ill after sun exposure.
In general though, keeping the afflicted area hydrated by using a moisturizer can help the skin recover from a burn. If you have to go out in the sun, it’s OK to apply sunscreen to sunburned areas, as long as the skin is not blistered and raw.
Speaking of sunscreen, opt for a higher SPF when you can—research we’ve conducted has shown that it is actually more protective than lower SPF sunscreen.
What's the best way to prevent sunburns in the first place?
First of all, it's important to remember that sun damage can sneak up on you. In fact, most sun exposure comes from daily living, like watching or playing sports, working in the yard or sitting outside at family gatherings. So you need to build sun protection into your regular routine—not just think about it when you’re heading to the beach or out to ski.
You should use multiple methods to protect your skin every single day, such as minimizing sun exposure when you can, and wearing protective clothing, sunglasses and sunscreen.
Speaking of sunscreen, opt for a higher SPF when you can—research we’ve conducted at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. has shown that it is actually more protective than lower SPF sunscreen. Apply it at least 15 minutes before heading outside, and reapply it at least every two hours while in the sun. And don't forget body parts people often forget, like your ears and feet.
And to minimize your risk of skin cancer, check your body for suspicious-looking or changing spots, and get skin checks as part of your yearly checkup from a healthcare professional, especially if you have a history of getting burned. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and these proactive measures really can help with early detection and successful management of skin cancers.