Don’t get burned on your next trip

You are finally there…the perfect beach, the perfect companion and the perfect drink in your hand. This is what you’ve been working and waiting for. You’ve left the mobile phone off and are dedicated to not letting anything ruin your trip. Besides the calls from work though, sunburn can ruin a holiday pretty quick.

Basics: Your Skin and the Sun’s Rays

You may remember from hazy days in high school biology that the skin has two main layers: epidermis (thin, outer layer) and the dermis (thicker, inner layer). The skin has many functions and one of them is protection from the sun. The amount of melanin in the skin can effect the skin’s ability to protect against sunburn and damage from ultraviolet light, as most light skinned people can tell you. Being very light skinned, I get a “light pink” just going outside to get my mail.

This sun’s ultraviolet light has three main types, UVA, UVB and UVC. People are exposed to much, much more UVA light than UVB, but it is actually UVB that is responsible for most sunlight induced erythema (sunburns). The UVC light is largely absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere. An interesting article that discusses the interplay of UVA and UVB and UVA’s possible role in skin damage can be found here


The best way to avoid getting a sunburn is to protect yourself and there are several ways to do this. Sunscreens, clothing, sunglasses and avoidance of peak sun hours (10 am to 3 pm) are all common tools in the war on sunburn. Glasses, contact lenses and sunglasses protect the eye from most UVB rays. For those of you that are “into shades” you can read a bit more about things like light transmission and distortion.

Sun protection clothing is a very useful item and quality counts — specifically the tightness of the weave in the garment. Material, proper, does not seem to be as important as this “weave tightness”, as evidenced by Lycra. When stretched, Lycra blocks only 2% of UVR compared to 100% when lax. The term to know is UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) and is similar to SPF for sunscreen. This is the amount of UV rays that are able to pass through the clothing. A UPF rating of 50 means only 1/50 of the sun’s UV rays pass through, offering substantial protection because only 2% of the suns rays get to your skin.

Sun Protection Factors (SPF)

The famous SPF rating of sunscreens is a commonly misunderstood factor that compares protection times of different strengths of sunscreen. This number is actually a ratio that uses the amount of time it takes to get a sunburn in a person wearing sunscreen versus one without protection.

For example, a person gets a sunburn in 10 minutes of sun exposure, without sunscreen. Wearing SPF 2 will protect their skin from sunburn for 20 minutes, or double their “unprotected” time it takes to burn. Wearing SPF 15 will give 150 minutes of protection or about 2 1/2 hours and SPF 50 offers 500 minutes of protection, or 8.3 hours. SPF merely gives an amount of time one is supposed to be protected from a sunburn. Interestingly, higher SPF values are associated with protection from UVB absorption. SPF 2 only blocks about 50% of UVB, while SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB and SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays.


The method by which the sunscreen is applied is very important. Creams and lotions generally spread well and allow good skin penetration. Gels tend to wash or sweat off easily, and some contain alcohol which can sting the skin. Sticks make it hard to cover a large area of skin. Oils traditionally spread thin and some can cause acne. Ointments/waxes are generally left to extreme environments and help resist skin chap and frostbite. Aerosolized and sprays make an even coating difficult, allowing for unprotected patches.

The biggest problem with sunscreen is that it is not properly used. This means adequate application in the beginning and re-application — frequently. Apply the sunscreen, liberally, to all exposed skin areas. Remember to get the neck, ears and backs of hands, too! Re-apply after swimming or water contact. Sunscreen goes on the skin first, then bug spray goes on top. Remember that use of DEET and sunscreen together decreases the sunscreen’s protection by 34%. Try not to let the sunscreen run into your eyes, as this will cause some irritation, trust me.

Sunscreens are a major cause of skin irritation, also. Oxybenzone is a common link in these products and is commonly know as PABA (p-aminobenzoic acid). Up to 4% of the population are adversely affected by this compound. If you have a sensitivity to PABA, make sure to select a PABA-free lotion.

Sunburn Treatment

OK, it happens. Forgot the sunscreen, didn’t re-apply, didn’t use enough the first time, whatever. You now have a burn and it hurts. For immediate relief, cool water soaks or compresses help with pain. Topical anesthetics do work and the preferred ones include menthol or camphor. Aspirin and ibuprofen are very good at reducing pain and swelling/inflammation. Sun avoidance for 48 hours may also help speed healing time. Lastly, ensure adequate hydration. My personal “sunburn remedy” is a lot of water.

More severe sunburns can be associated with blistering of the skin, fevers/chills, and even vomiting. If your skin blisters, try not to beak them. If they do break, wash the area with soap and water and consider applying a thin layer of antibiotic cream.

Hopefully, most everybody associates sun exposure and burns with skin damage and even cancers, later in life. Even if this is not as catchy as the “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” essay, hopefully this will help you remember to wear your sunscreen and avoid a few days of discomfort on your “perfect beach holiday”.

For more information check out:

CDC Travel Health: Sunburn