Written by Dr. Snyder
Sunburn is a radiation type burn that damages the skin when it has been overexposed to ultraviolet rays of the sun or an artificial light source such as a tanning bed. Symptoms can include redness, burning, or blistering on areas of the skin that have been exposed to the sun. Sunburn should be thought of as damaging or “poisoning” to the skin.
How does the sun cause damage to the skin?
The outer layer of the skin is called the epidermis. The sun emits ultraviolet rays that can cause damage in a number of ways, such as the following.
- The skin can lose its stretchiness (or elasticity). Normal skin is pliable and stretchable. Over time, sun-damaged skin can lose its pliability. The skin can become tight and “scarred.”
- Repeated overexposure to ultraviolet rays can cause skin disfigurement. Examples can include freckling and other types of skin lesions.
- Sun damage is a leading cause of premature aging of the skin. It also increases the risk of developing skin cancer. If you are fair skinned, freckle easy, and are of Northern European ancestry, your risk of developing skin cancer increases.
Why are the ultraviolet (UV) rays dangerous?
Much of the ozone layer has been lost. It is this layer that helps protect us from the damaging effects of UV rays. A critical aspect to understand is that UV rays are ultraviolet radiation. Repeated exposure to UV radiation causes permanent skin damage and increases the risk of developing cancer.
What are some symptoms of sunburn?
The symptoms of sunburn often depend on the amount of time that is spent exposed to UV rays.
- Redness and tenderness of the skin is the most immediate reaction.
- Longer exposure can result in blistering of an exposed area. The area is very warm and tender to touch.
- More prolonged exposure to the UV rays may cause you to feel sick — nausea, vomiting, and headache are some symptoms of sun poisoning (or really prolonged sunburn) that are a serious concern.
What about the needing the sun for Vitamin D? How do I accomplish this and avoid sunburn?
The sun is one of the main sources of Vitamin D for the body. Our skin contains an enzyme that helps the body process Vitamin D so that it is usable for the body. One risk factor for low Vitamin D levels is spending too little time outside. An irony of Vitamin D is that much of our needed Vitamin D comes from the sun and low Vitamin D levels actually increase the risk of developing skin! People only need 15 minutes of sun exposure a day to obtain the recommended amount of Vitamin D. You don’t need to spend hours in the sun for your body to receive the Vitamin D it needs.
Your diet is an important aspect to reduce the risk of sunburn. You can “eat your way” to better skin health. Foods that are high in antioxidants and Omega oils are protective against the effects of UV ray skin damage.
On a daily basis, consume foods that have a high antioxidant value. Include one or more of the following foods in your nutrition program.
- Collard Greens
Several studies have demonstrated that Omega 3s can reduce the degree of sun-induced skin damage.
The following foods are high in Omega 3 content.
If you find it difficult to add these to your diet, then try adding a daily “greens” powder to your diet. Many of these powders are full of plant-based oxidants and Omega 3 content. Most often a heaping tablespoon in an 8 oz glass of water first thing in the morning is recommended. Follow the directions on the powder mixture container.
Supplementing with herbs and antioxidants can help prevent sunburn. Use a combination of several for maximum skin protection.
This antioxidant that is found in the skin of the grape is very beneficial in preventing sunburn. It is a “photo-chemoprotective agent “ that boosts skin defenses to help prevent UV ray induced skin damage. For sunburn prevention, use both the capsule form and the topical form. Take one 250 mg capsule daily in the morning and before venturing outside, apply resveratrol cream to those sun-exposed areas, such as your face, arms, and legs.
Green Tea Extract
Did you know that green tea extract can assist in the prevention of sunburn? It can be found as an ingredient in some sunscreens. In one study, the use of sunscreens that contained Green Tea Extract helped provide significant better protection from the UV rays. In another study, volunteers who had green tea extract applied to the skin prior to being exposed to solar radiation demonstrated little or no redness to the skin. When the skin cells were evaluated under a microscope, they found a reduced number of cells affected by solar radiation compared to the control group. Look for natural sunscreens that contain Green Tea Extract and apply to your skin before going outside.
Additionally, considering drinking green tea extract daily. It will provide your skin cells with antioxidant support needed to defend against sun induced skin damage.
Vitamins C and E
Both Vitamins C and E are excellent skin antioxidants and can be taken on a daily basis.
In one study, taking 2 grams of Vitamin C and 1000 units of Vitamin E daily resulted in a noticeable reduction in the redness of the skin after exposure to UV rays, as compared to the control group.
Begin with Vitamin C 1 gram a day and Vitamin E 400 IU (International Units a day).
- The ester form of Vitamin C is recommended as it is more effectively in the body compared to the other forms.
- In nature, there are two “types” of Vitamin E — tocopherols and tocotrienols. Read the labels when choosing a Vitamin E supplement to be sure that the bottle mentions both types.
Omega 3 Fish Oil
Omega 3 fish oil can help protect the skin from sun damage. It can dramatically decrease the skin response to acute sunburn, including reduced redness and tenderness. People can start by taking 1000 mg twice a day.
Polypodium leucotomos is an herb that has shown to protect the skin against UV radiation. Studies have demonstrated that both topical and oral forms are effective. There is an oral form of this called Fernblock. It is to be taken 30-minutes before going out into the sun.
Create Your Own Natural Sunscreen
While commercial sunscreens do provide the skin with sun protection, there can be concern with some of the other ingredients that are included. Some of them may be toxic and may increase the risk of developing cancer. You can create your own natural sunscreen.
Vegetable oils, including olive oil, and coconut oil can provide protection against the UV rays of the sun. Other oils that you can add when creating your own natural sunscreen include sesame seed oil and hemp seed oil.
Common Sense Approach
- Avoid going outside in the middle of the day when the sun is at its brightest.
- Wear loose fitting and light-colored clothing, as dark colors absorb more heat.
- Wear a wide-brim hat to protect your face.
Natural Treatment of Sunburn
Here are some general principles concerning the treatment of acute sunburn:
- For areas that are mildly red, the use of a cool compress can help.
- Drink plenty of fluids to help prevent dehydration.
- If there is blistering of the skin or other symptoms including nausea or headache, it’s advisable to seek medical attention.
In addition, the use of botanical antioxidants, essential oils and homeopathic remedies can help provide relief of pain and reduce inflammation.
This has been well studied for the treatment of acute sunburn. In one study, the effects of a topical resveratrol treatment for the treatment of acute sunburn were evaluated. There were several areas of the skin that were “designated” to receive exposure to UV rays. On one of those areas a topical anti-oxidant crème containing resveratrol was placed on one of the sunburned areas for all fifteen people for four consecutive days. The investigators noted that the area treated with resveratrol had minimal redness compared to the other sites in all fifteen individuals. They also noted that there was a decrease in the number of sunburned cells in the resveratrol treated group compared to the others. Apply this antioxidant cream to the sunburned areas twice a day.
Green tea extract
This cream also can provide the skin with the antioxidant support to minimize the pain and inflammation of acute sunburn. Massage the cream directly into the sunburned area twice a day.
- Add a combination of these oils to your evening bath by adding a few drops of peppermint oil and chamomile oil to the bath water.
- Take a drop of peppermint oil and gently apply to those sunburned areas.
- The healing properties of lavender oil are helpful for the treatment of acute sunburn. Add 15 drops to a small spray bottle and spray on the sunburned areas.
Vitamins C and E
Using topical Vitamin C and E has beneficial effects for the treatment of acute UV damage. In several studies, the combination of these two antioxidants have demonstrated efficacy at treating acute sunburn. Apply this directly to the sunburned area twice a day.
Homeopathic remedies can also be used for the treatment of sunburn. The small doses used in homeopathy are effective in helping the damaged skin heal with no side effects.They can be used in conjunction with other skin based treatments.
One effective homeopathic treatment is Arnica Montana. It can reduce the skin inflammation and help promote healing of the sunburned area. You can apply Arnica Montana gel at a 30C dilution to the affected area four times a day.
Another effective option is the Boiron Calendula Cream. Calendula officinalis is the primary ingredient and it is very effective in the treatment of minor skin wounds and burns. You can apply Calendula cream to the sunburned area three times a day.
Updated: August 2013
- Eberlein-Konig B, Placzek M et al. “Protective effect against sunburn of combined systemic ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and d-alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E).” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 1998;38:45-48.
- Elmets CA, Singh D et al. “Cutaneous photoprotection from ultraviolet injury by green tea polyphenols.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2001 Mar;44(3):425-32.
- Kaur CD, Saraf S. “In vitro sun protection factor determination of herbal oils used in cosmetics.” Pharmacognosy Research. 2010 Jan;2(1):22-5.
- Li YH, Wu Y et al. “Protective effects of green tea extracts on photoaging and photommunosuppression.” Skin Research and Technology. 2009 Aug;15(3):338-45.
- Middlekamp-Hup MA, Pathak MA et al. “Orally administered Polypodium leucotomos extract decreases psoralen-UVA-induced phototoxicity, pigmentation, and damage of human skin.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2004 Jan;50(1):41-9.
- Stahl W, Sies H. “Carotenoids and flavonoids contribute to nutritional protection against skin damage from sunlight.” Molecular biotechnology. 2007 Sep;37(1):26-30.
- Wu Y, Jia LL et al. “Resveratrate protects human skin from damage due to repetitive ultraviolet irradiation.” Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. 2012 Jan 5. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-3083.2011.
- Wu Y, Zheng X et al. “Protective effects of a topical antioxidant complex containing vitamins C and E and ferulic acid against ultraviolet irradiation-induced photodamage in ChinKonigese women.” Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. 2013 Apr;12(4):464-8.