Sunday, June 10, 2007

Apple #246: Sunburn and Sunscreen

I went to hear former President Clinton give a commencement speech today, which meant that I was sitting in the sun for about three hours. Silly me, although I wore sunglasses and a hat and brought my own bottled water, I did not put on sunscreen before going to the ceremony. Bah, I thought, I'll be fine.

I now have one of the worst sunburns I've ever had. It is not the worst because I left as soon as Clinton stopped speaking. I knew I was getting burned -- my skin looked bright red through my sunglasses though it looked the same without my sunglasses -- and when I scratched near my collarbone where the skin is thinner and very sensitive to sun, it stung. As soon as I could, I practically ran to get out of the sun. But this burn is pretty bad. Some six hours later, my skin is deep red, flaming hot, and tingling and prickling. I'm also feeling slightly nauseous. Bleah.

A woman named Erin with a bad sunburn
(Photo from her directory at MIT)

  • Apply sunscreen about half an hour before you go out into the sun.
  • Make sure you pretty much glop it on. Most people don't put on enough sunscreen, or they apply it too thinly.
  • SPF = the ratio of the amount of time it would take for protected skin to get a burn vs. the time unprotected skin would burn. SPF 15, for example, is supposed to mean that if you wear sunblock with SPF 15, it would take 15 times longer before your skin burns than without sunblock. But that ratio is usually not accurate because many people don't apply sunblock correctly, or it washes off, etc.

Relatively new sunscreen products, all with high SPFs
(Photo from Blog This Next's pages on sunscreens)

  • Most doctors recommend sunscreens with SPFs of at least 30.
  • No sunscreen is waterproof. If it claims to be, it is lying. It can be water resistant, but it will not be waterproof.
  • There are so many problems with sunscreen that packagers are no longer allowed to call it sunblock, only sunscreen.
  • Choose a sunscreen that protects against UVB and UVA rays, a.k.a. "broad spectrum" protection.
  • Sunscreens are good for a minimum of three years. But if you use the product properly and as often as you should (any time you're in the sun for more than 20 minutes), you should use up a bottle of sunscreen long before three years have passed.
  • And by the way, there is no safe way to tan. Whether you're in the sun or in a tanning bed, you are damaging your skin and increasing the likelihood of giving yourself skin cancer.
[update: The FDA will soon require sunscreen manufacturers to indicate on the bottle whether their product protects against UVA rays, and to indicate the strength of that protection by displaying stars -- the more stars the stronger the protection.]

  • There really are no good ways to treat a sunburn once it's happened. This is why sunscreen is so important. The best you can do after the fact is try to make the pain and heat a little less severe.

The best stuff I ever used after a sunburn was a blue aloe vera gel. I can't remember now the exact name of the product, but it was something like this. Except this has Lidocaine in it, to which some people are allergic.
(Photo and opportunity to order from

  • Things you can put on your skin to ease the burn:
    • Equal parts milk and water on a cool compress.
    • Aloe-based lotions.
    • Or, if you have an aloe plant, you can split open a leaf and scoop out the goop and put it right on your skin, though it takes a lot of aloe goo to do very much. The aloe lotions are much easier to use and provide more coverage.
    • Even regular moisturizers can help.
    • Cool -- not cold -- baths or showers. If you do take a shower, you'll want to avoid a strong spray.
    • You can also take aspirin or an NSAID like Tylenol, which can help reduce the pain and some blistering.

This person's shoulder was sunburned so badly, blisters arose. This blistering means he sustained a second-degree burn. If you burned your hand on the oven, say, enough to get a second degree burn, you'd take that pretty seriously, wouldn't you?
(Photo posted at

  • Things that will make your sunburn feel worse:
    • Lotions with oils or Vasoline, which will trap the heat to your skin
    • Old fashioned "treatments" like butter or toothpaste -- these will make the pain worse!
    • Products with perfumes which will be irritants
    • Bath salts or bath oils
    • Soap
    • Scratchy towels or scrubby things like loofahs or sponges
    • More sun exposure
  • Also, products with anesthetics such as benzocaine or lidocaine (Solarcaine, e.g.) can trigger an allergic reaction

  • You should go to the emergency room if your sunburn is so extreme you experience the following:
    • Severe pain and blistering
    • Headache
    • Confusion
    • Severe chills
    • Rapid pulse
    • Nausea, even vomiting
    • Fainting (a.k.a. sun poisoning)
  • If these things are happening, you have sun poisoning.
  • If you don't go to the hospital, you'll risk contracting an infection at the blister sites. What is more likely is that you could get severely dehydrated and lose way too may electrolytes, which can throw the body into toxic shock. You do not want that to happen.

This bicyclist is applying sunscreen, and look how happy he is!
(Photo from the Hopkins 4K for Cancer)

Your skin is your friend. Be nice to it.

(This includes you, too, Apple Lady!)

Melissa Stoppler MD, Summer Survival Kit, eMedicine Health
Melissa Stoppler MD,, Sunburn and Sun-Sensitizing Drugs
American Academy of Dermatology, Facts About Sunscreens
National Library of Medicine and NIH's Medical Encyclopedia, Sunburn, Sunburn


  1. This post made me think, you know what make another good apple? Red heads and/or freckles.

  2. Ugh. I feel awful. My sunburn is UNBEARABLE. I can hardly move!

  3. Amber Martinez5/09/2011 6:52 PM

    how long did it take for the blisters to go away?

  4. Hi Amber, I didn't experience blisters. I don't know who the person is in the photo that got blisters, so I can't say how long they lasted. But I read elsewhere that it can take 3 to 6 days for sunburn blisters to heal. Depends on how severe they are.

  5. i have the worst sunburn ever, my face is life the blisters shown above.. i hope it goes soon.. worst thing is, everyone recmmend aloe vera, and im allergic to it :O

  6. I'm Erin. That sunburn was awful... and I was wearing sunscreen. Unfortunately, it was expired, which we didn't notice until after the fact. (All three of us that used that bottle got roasted.) So not only should you wear sunscreen, but check the expiration date.

  7. Hi Erin, thanks for stopping by! Good tip about checking the expiration date. Sorry you had to learn the hard way. :(

  8. I got blisters poping out my frickin shoulder icant move my arms or put on shirts I feal criples

  9. IM SO SUNBURNT RIGHT NOW!!!)=...shit in 22nd july i went camping/kayakin/fishin by my self at a lake up in the sierra mountians planned stayin there a week, first day it was nice cloudy rained a bit cought sum nice trout, at night had 5-7 beers, 3-5 shots vodka, big cup wine, woke up at 9am from sun heat hittin tent hella hung over drank few beers, no shade cause i was on island wit no trees, swam for 1-2 hours chilled wit out shirt half day didnt really feel SUNBURNT later in the day i started havin fever & chills nausea, so i was like screw it im goin home cause i thought i got sick from food i was eatin so it takes me 2 1/2 hours 2 kayak back 2 car(BIG lake) so i start kayakin back when gets hour into kayakin i got so sick & delusional i started hearin voices, vomiting, vision very blurry, thought i was gonna die, get back 2 car couldnt even walk almost passed out was shakin like never in my life from chills, get in car thought 2 sleep in car was really sick put blanket on myself got even more sick vomited & pissed on my self thought i was done & gonna i toke all my cloths off drove back like i was high of my mind...barely drove home take my shirt of in pain look at my back in mirror while wit fever & whole back covered in yellew BIG puss sees me & yakes me 2 i have bad second degree now im on norcos, motrin, anti infection creams fellin like shit cant sit back or lay down on back cause my back it messed up & cant really sleep on my stomach cause it 2 is burnt but not 2 bad...only sleepin few hours a night in missery...I FEEL LIKE IM IN HELL) bein sun burnt IS NO JOKE cause u can die from IT!!!!!!! please take care of ur selfs in the sun!


If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!