Henry James, the American born writer of the 19th century once wrote “Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been two of the most beautiful words in the English language.” I couldn’t agree more! But it is also a time to start thinking about our skin and the risk of sunburn. In fact, I just received an email this past week from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) warning people to take proper precautions as we move into the sunny season. According to their newsletter “Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in the United States, and melanoma is the most deadly kind of skin cancer. Just a few serious sunburns at any age can increase a person’s risk of skin cancer.”
As a pharmacist I often get questions this time of year about issues related to sun exposure and sunburn. What is sunburn? By definition, sunburn is simply the, often painful, reddening of the skin due to exposure to the suns UV (ultraviolet) rays. Note, it is the infrared radiation that gives the sun its heat, but it is really the UV radiation that causes sunburn. This is important, as it does not have to be hot out to get burned. The UV rays damage cells within the skin which in turn causes inflammation, redness and pain. So in this post I would like to focus on three important topics that frequently come up in the pharmacy:
Treating sunburn, and
Medications that can increase sensitivity to the sun
The most important thing you can do to prevent sunburn is to limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the hours in which UV damage is most likely, namely 10:00AM to 4:00PM. When you must be outside, cover exposed skin whenever possible. But since so many of us simply cannot wait to enjoy a dip in the pool or swim in the ocean, wearing a good sunscreen is essential. I generally recommend picking up a product with an SPF (sun protection factor) rating of 15 or more. An SPF 15 sunscreen, properly applied, filters out 93% of UVB radiation. The “15” (to use SPF 15 for an example) indicates that it will take 15 times as long to receive the same exposure to UVB radiation as you would without sunscreen on. The key point is this: apply it early (at least 30 minutes prior to sun exposure), apply it often (every 2 hours at least), and apply enough (about 1 ounce – or 2 tablespoons) to the entire body.
However, to quote the memorable and poetic line that inspired title to Steinbeck’s classic, “the best laid schemes of mice and men, often go awry.” You got burned. Now what? And here there is no shortage of disagreement. I’ll share with you my advice. The goal is to relieve the pain, protect the skin and promote healing. Most importantly…get out of the sun. If possible, minimize any additional sun exposure for 2-3 days. Other recommendations by the American Academy of Dermatology include:
- Take an analgesic (unless you can’t for other medical reasons) for pain such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin.
- Apply a topical moisturizing gel or cream, preferably after a bath or shower to hold moisture in.
- Drink extra water to help rehydrate.
MEDICATIONS AND SUNBURN
Certain prescription medications can make your skin more sensitive to the sun and therefore make it more likely for you to burn. These include some very common medications like thiazide diuretics (e.g. hydrochlorothiazide), sulfonamide antibiotics, tricyclic antidepressants (e.g. desipramine, imipramine), and oral contraceptives. Be sure to check with your pharmacist about the medication which you are taking, or look it up online. If you medication can cause photosensitivity, then it is all the more important for you to prevent sunburn in the first place.
For a fairly comprehensive (though not exhaustive) list of medications that can cause increased sensitivity to the sun, CLICK HERE.
So summer is here – a time to get outside, enjoy the warm weather and appreciate the sun. But let’s do so safely and allow “summer afternoon” to be words we remember with pleasure, rather than look back on with pain.
©Jason Poquette and The Honest Apothecary. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jason Poquette and The Honest Apothecary with appropriate and specific direction to the original content
Last modified: April 17, 2023