Chances are you’ve stayed in the sun too long at least once in your life and wound up with an angry, painful sunburn. If you have, you know that the pain, itching, and peeling make it anything but fun. Finding something comfortable to wear and a comfortable position to sit or lie can make sunburns a miserable experience.
Let’s look at the science behind sunburns and discuss some natural ways to help calm a sunburn. That way next time you can hopefully prevent it, or at least know helpful ways to treat it.
What Causes Sunburns?
The simple answer is, well, the sun. (Duh.)
The longer answer is prolonged exposure to the sun can cause your body’s natural defense systems to kick in to protect itself from the damage the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays cause.
When those defenses become overwhelmed, a toxic reaction occurs. Sunburn isn’t the same as when you burn yourself on something, like a stove. It’s not the heat from the sun that causes sunburn; it’s the UV rays.
If the UV rays become more than your body can handle, your skin cells begin to die. Inflammation, redness, blisters, and pain can follow. Your skin will heal from even severe sunburn, but that doesn’t mean it’s left unscathed. Mutations happen in the surviving cells that can cause skin damage, premature aging, and melanoma down the line.
Skin damage cannot reverse, but there are ways to protect your skin from damage before spending time in the sun. Fortunately, there are also ways to improve damaged skin. (1)
Benefits of the Sun
Although prolonged sun exposure can harm the skin, the right balance has many benefits. Without enough exposure to the sun, serotonin levels can drop, worsening your mood. Low serotonin levels can lead to seasonal affective disorder and depression.
Here are seven great reasons to spend some time in the sunshine: (2)
Helps to keep weight off — The layer of fat just below your skin responds to the blue light emitted by the sun, so moderate sunbathing can help to shrink fat cells.
Improves depression — Without enough exposure to the sun, serotonin levels can drop, worsening your mood. Low serotonin levels can lead to seasonal affective disorder and depression. (3)
Improves sleep — When your body is exposed regularly to sunlight, it increases serotonin levels by day and melatonin levels by night. If you spend some time in sunlight every day, your body will regulate its sleep-wake cycle. (4)
Lessens pain — Exposure to the UV rays of the sun can cause the skin to produce beta-endorphins, which are the hormones that reduce pain. (5)
Reduces stress — Sunlight helps the body to regulate and produce healthy melatonin levels that can lower anxiety and stress. (6)
Strengthens bones — Sun triggers the body to make vitamin D, which is essential for healthy and strong bones. (7)
Strengthens immune system — Just as vitamin D from sun exposure is critical for bones, it also helps the body to take in and use more immunity-boosting minerals like calcium and phosphorus. (8)
Symptoms of Sunburn
Sunburn can cause many symptoms, which are painful and can cause lasting damage to the collagen in your skin and connective tissues later on. Prolonged UV exposure can lead to melanoma, dark spots, wrinkles, and dry skin. The symptoms of sunburn include: (9, 10)
- Blistering of the skin
- Changes in skin tone, such as pink or red skin
- Eyes that feel gritty
- Pain or tenderness
- Skin that feels warm or hot to the touch
All areas of exposed skin can burn, including the lips and eyes, so it’s important to protect those as well if you plan on spending any time in the sun. You should see your healthcare practitioner if the sunburn is severe and you have any of the following symptoms:
- Blisters on the body, face, and hands
- Severe dehydration
- Severe swelling
- Signs of infection, such as pus, streaks leading away from an open blister
- Sunburn that doesn’t improve within a few days
The Deep Science of Sunburns
Sunburns are not just skin deep.
UV rays can damage molecules in your skin and, most importantly, your DNA. The damage to these molecules leads to mutations in certain proteins and enzymes, which can cause blood vessels to dilate and lead to inflammation. (11)
What that basically means is, when you have sunburned skin that fades after a day or two, that’s not all that is taking place. There is damage that occurs where you can’t see it, and that can be terrible for your skin years down the road.
Sunburns feel warm because of increased blood flow to the affected area. Your skin may also peel as your sunburn heals. This is your body’s way of getting rid of damaged cells that could become dangerous for your health. Sometimes, the damaging effects don’t show for quite some time. (12)
A common symptom of sunburns is fatigue. If you've had a sunburn, you probably also had a hard time staying awake or even clocking out soon after. That's because your body is working overtime to keep a comfortable temperature through your metabolism rate — which impacts your energy levels.
And then there's your mitochondria. You're probably familiar with these little batteries that power your cells. A lesser known role mitochondria play is immune defense. When you get a sunburn, your mitochondria switch from energy production to protection. They get to work repairing and rebuilding the damage, and in turn neglect energy production. (13)
Dehydration is the last missing piece. Sun exposure can completely drain your body of fluids. Even mild dehydration, like 1–3% of your body weight, impairs a variety of brain functions. This includes the part of your brain that decides energy levels. (14, 15)
The end result — you feel completely wiped out. And that's just one of many symptoms from sunburns.
In short, sunburns can be a lot more complicated than you'd first think. A great deal of scientific processes go into how your body responds and recovers from a sunburn. Plus, certain factors can make you more susceptible to sunburn or damage.
Sun Exposure Risk Factors
Several factors can worsen your chances of getting sunburned. Those risks include:
- Drinking alcohol
- Natural appearance: blue eyes, fair skin, and blond or red hair
- Regular exposure to UV light from tanning beds
- Some medications (check with your healthcare practitioner if you’re on medication before you spend time in the sun)
- Swimming, as wet skin tends to burn more than dry skin
- Working outdoors
General Sunburn Complications
Sunburns can be painful, but discomfort comes from more than the burn itself. Spending time in the sun can also cause dehydration, fatigue, feeling cold (when sunburned), fever, and itching. That is certainly a recipe for a miserable few days, and it can be dangerous to ignore those symptoms.
As already covered, sunburn damages DNA. Luckily, your body and its DNA have a remarkable ability to heal. But what if you keep on getting sunburns? Eventually, your DNA can get to a point where it has difficulty repairing the sunburn damage, and mutations can occur within your DNA. That can lead to melanoma and premature aging. (16)
Serious Sunburn Complications
An occasional sunburn isn’t usually a cause for concern. However, repeated or severe sunburns can cause damaging and dangerous complications. UV rays are the strongest between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. If you plan on spending time outside and are especially sensitive to sun, try to avoid those hours if you can, especially during the summer months. (17)
Blisters — Severe and blistered sunburn needs prompt medical attention. Excessive exposure to UV rays damages the skin and may cause melanoma. Each time you expose your skin to harmful UV rays, you increase your risk of developing skin issues.
Blisters usually appear a few hours after sunburn occurs. Sunburn blisters can be extremely painful and take around a week to heal. After the blisters heal, blister scars that appear as dark or light spots on the skin’s surface can remain visible for 6 to 12 months. (18)
Heatstroke — Heatstroke, or heat exhaustion, is a severe heat-related illness that involves an elevation in body temperature. It can cause central nervous system dysfunction, including confusion, delirium, or seizures after strenuous physical exertion or exposure to hot weather. It is important to drink plenty of water if you spend any time in the sun and to take frequent breaks to avoid heatstroke. (19)
Sun poisoning — Sun poisoning refers to severe sunburn. Unlike a mild sunburn, sun poisoning usually requires medical treatment to prevent complications. With sun poisoning, you may first experience symptoms of regular sunburn. Sunburn symptoms can appear within 6 to 12 hours of exposure to UV rays.
In addition to the usual sunburn-like symptoms, you might experience: (20)
- Blistering or peeling skin
- Fever and chills
- Nausea or vomiting
- Severe redness, swelling, and pain
Sun rash — Sun rash, or polymorphous light eruption, is caused by sun exposure in people who have developed sensitivity to sunlight. The rash usually appears as red, tiny bumps, or slightly raised patches of skin.
Sun rash occurs most often during spring and early summer when exposure to sunlight increases. The rash often recurs each year after the first incident.
Sun rash usually goes away on its own without scarring within 10 days. People with severe or persistent rashes may need treatment with medication. (21)
The Dangers of Sunscreen
Sunscreen is intended to be applied to your body every day for protection from harmful UV rays. Two ingredients — titanium dioxide and zinc oxide — are safe and effective. New studies raise concerns about the endocrine-disrupting effects from three other ingredients found in popular sunscreens: avobenzone, homosalate, and oxybenzone.
These ingredients, once absorbed, could be detected on the skin and in the blood weeks after being used and can be harmful to your body. It is recommended that you avoid sunscreens that contain those ingredients. (22)
Natural Ways to Treat Sunburn and its Side Effects
There are several natural and effective ways to treat the effects of sunburn. The following can help with the pain and other negative effects of sunburn.
Aloe vera gel — Aloe vera is a tropical, medicinal plant that has been used for thousands of years to treat skin conditions such as wounds and burns. Aloe vera gel is so effective at soothing burns that it’s sometimes referred to as the “burn plant.” Natural aloe vera gel can reduce the healing time and pain associated with sunburn. (23)
Binders for toxins — Toxins such as glyphosate can damage your body in many ways. Although there are no current studies on the effects of toxins on sunburn, toxins such as glyphosate and heavy metals are known to disrupt healing mechanisms in your body. It can be helpful to support your body through detox to ensure proper healing can occur from the damage caused by sunburn. (24)
Cool baths and showers — A cool bath or shower can ease the swelling and pain of sunburn. Once out of the shower, it may be beneficial for you to leave some water on your skin to help replace the moisture lost due to sunburn. (25)
Essential oils — Studies show that certain essential oils are effective in treating sunburn. The essential oils found safe are: (26)
- Amyris for inflammation
- Balsam for burns
- Camphor for burns and inflammation
- Celery for puffiness and redness
- Eucalyptus for blisters, burns, and inflammation
- Fir as a skin tonic
- Frankincense for inflammation
- Lavender for burns, blisters, and inflammation
- Lemon for blisters
- Yarrow for burns, inflammation, and rashes
Minerals — Antioxidants taken during high sun exposure can defend your skin from UV rays. They can significantly reduce inflammation, skin redness, and swelling.
Mitochondrial support — Mitochondria work overtime when you are sunburned. It takes a significant amount of energy to repair the damage from UV rays. Giving your mitochondria extra support during this time can help speed the healing process. Reinforcing your mitochondria may help prevent UV-induced skin damage such as inflammation, sunburn, and premature aging. (27)
Water intake — Increasing your water intake following a sunburn can increase skin elasticity, reduce dryness, and reverse dehydration. Drinking water does not prevent sunburn or reduce pain or inflammation. But it can go a long way toward preventing dehydration, which can be more damaging to your body than the sunburn itself. (28)
Even with preventive measures, sunburns happen. But with good nutritional support and careful planning, you may not have to feel the burn quite so often.