It starts out innocently enough. You tan a little too much, sunscreen slips your mind or you figure it’s not the end of the world if you don’t bother reapplying. Next thing you know, the gorgeous skin you’ve been prepping all year to show off this summer has transformed into a dry and inflamed hot mess, and you more closely resemble a lobster than a bikini model.
We all know that we shouldn’t have fun in the sun without protecting our skin, but the truth is, sunburns happen. Luckily, HC consulted a panel of dermatologists and real-life collegiette to bring you the best in sunburn treatment and prevention tips.
What is Sunburn?
So how exactly does skin go from smooth and sunkissed to rough, overheated and peeling, anyway?
“Ultraviolet light, which is radiation, damages skin cells, causing them to die,” Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, a dermatologist and skincare blogger, says. Sunlight consists of ultraviolet radiation, often referred to as UV rays.
Dermatologist Dr. Rachel Herschenfeld says that exposure to the sun’s rays happens even when we aren’t thinking about being in the sun. “UV exposure occurs when people go outside, and even inside through window glass and while driving,” she explains.
Skin cell-destroying UV exposure triggers an inflammatory response in the skin, which causes sunburn. The inflammation is evident in symptoms like redness, tenderness, swelling and peeling of the skin.
Common Sun Mistakes
Even the most skincare-savvy girl makes the occasional fun-in-the-sun faux pas. HC asked collegiettes to share their sunburn stories.
“I neglected to put on sunscreen.”
Alexandra, a junior at the University of New Hampshire, didn’t have much patience for applying sunscreen in her early teen years. Once, on a weekend trip to the beach, Alexandra skipped sunscreen in order to tan. “The hours passed and I was so cold in the water that I didn't feel my skin burning,” Alexandra says. “When I got out of the water, my whole body started to burn. My skin was taut and red and I felt nauseous the rest of the weekend family vacation.”
“I spent too much time in the tanning bed.”
Jessica, a sophomore at Ohio University, hadn’t tanned for about six months. “I was so excited to start tanning again, I went one day in the tanning bed for fifteen minutes… and then went back the very next day for twenty minutes!” she says. The consequence? “I was so red for the next week, and I could barely sleep because every time I moved in bed, it felt like I had hot needles pricking my skin!” Jessica says.
“I thought darker skin couldn’t burn.”
“I'm half-black and since I have brown skin, everyone (including me) assumes that I can't burn,” says Danai, a rising sophomore at Harvard. However, she’s been proven wrong: “Whenever I go outside without sun protection on for a while, my skin starts peeling a few days later!” Danai doesn’t experience pain from her sunburns, but she tries to remember to put on sunscreen to avoid the peeling.
Chances are, you’ve been in a situation similar to one of these ladies. Four out of ten people get sunburned at least once a year, the Skin Cancer Foundation reports.
Sunburns can range widely, from slightly irritating to unbearable. Regardless of how bad your burn is, you’re probably itching (no pun intended) to heal and get back to enjoying summer. Read on for expert tips on how to deal with sunburn.