Sunburn (Sun Poisoning)

  • Medical Author:
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Quick GuideSun-Damaged Skin: Pictures of Sun Spots, Wrinkles, Sunburns

Sun-Damaged Skin: Pictures of Sun Spots, Wrinkles, Sunburns

How can sunburn and skin cancer be prevented?

The ideal methods of preventing sunburn, and hopefully skin cancer, involve:

  • Limit the amount of time of sun exposure and avoiding the peak sunshine hours of late morning to early mid-day, generally 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Wear protective clothing such as a broad-brimmed hat, UV protected sunglasses and clothing; long pants, and shirts with sleeves that cover the arms (thicker fabrics and dark clothing in general protect better compared with light clothing - there are clothing products available that offer "UV" protection).
  • Be aware sunburn can occur even on a cloudy day (clouds don't stop ultraviolet rays), and even when you are in the water.
  • Remember that sand, water, and snow reflect the sun's rays and increase the chance of burning during beach activities or skiing.
  • Use a protective sunscreen to minimize the penetration of UV rays. Sunscreens with a skin protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 are recommended for everyone, even dark-skinned individuals, exposed to the sun. Light skinned people should use a higher SPF when in direct sun. Apply several minutes before going into the sun and reapply often.
  • Avoid tanning beds and sun lamps.

How do sunscreens work?

Sunscreens protect the skin by absorbing or reflecting the UV radiation. Many available sunscreens protect mainly against UVB and may not adequately protect against long standing UVA exposure.

Sunscreens may be classified into two groups, physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens.

Physical sunscreens

  • Physical sunscreens act by reflecting and scattering the UV rays (A and B) and thus, limiting their exposure to the skin.
  • They include chemicals such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, ferric chloride, ichthammol, and talc.
  • Their use has been somewhat limited by their opaque appearance and tendency to stain clothing.
  • Many newer preparations of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are more cosmetically acceptable and easier to use.

Chemical sunscreens

  • Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the light prior to reaching the skin.
  • Traditionally, these sunscreens have protected mainly against UVB rays.
  • Some examples of this group include para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), PABA esters, salicylates, and camphor derivatives. PABA has been phased out of sunscreen preparations because of the high rate of allergic reactions to this chemical.
  • More recently, newer sunscreens have been developed to also absorb UVA rays such as avobenzone, Mexoryl, dibenzoylmethanes, anthranilates, benzophenones, triazoles, and some camphor derivatives.

The most recommended practice is to use a combination of physical and chemical sunscreens for the most adequate protection.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/7/2016

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