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Jun 6, 2023

Sun Safety: How to Prevent Sunburn

Moderate exposure to the sun provides many health benefits, including helping the human body make Vitamin D. This essential nutrient strengthens the bones, blood cells, and immune system, and helps the body absorb important minerals like calcium and phosphorus.

Sunburn prevention is crucial for taking care of your skin – the largest organ of the body! According to the Surgeon General, more than 1 out of every 3 Americans reports getting sunburned each year.

Anyone who has returned home from a long day outside with red painful skin knows that too much sun is not a good thing. Occasional mild sunburns can be treated with aloe or other soothing ointments. Over long periods of time, frequent overexposure to the sun can cause premature skin aging and permanent skin damage, including skin cancer.

Skin damage results from two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun. Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays cause wrinkling and skin aging. Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays produce sunburn. The best way to avoid skin damage from UV rays is to practice sun safety on a regular basis, including applying sunscreen when spending time outdoors.

Check out our tips for sunburn relief.

What is Sunscreen?

Sunscreen is a skin care product that uses a combination of organic chemical compounds to protect the surface of the skin from UV rays. It comes in spray or lotion formulas, and works by absorbing the UV rays, converting them into heat, and releasing back into the air. Whether using spray or lotion, sunscreen must be rubbed into the skin in order to be effective.

Sunblock offers a different kind of sunscreen to protect against UV skin damage. It works by using minerals such as zinc oxide or titanium oxide to form a physical barrier that prevents UV rays from getting into the skin. Because sunblock remains on the surface of the skin, it does not need to be rubbed in. Unlike sunscreens, which are invisible once applied, sunblocks often leave a layer of tint, usually white, on the skin.

What is “Broad Spectrum” Sunscreen?

When used properly, sunscreens and sunblocks are effective at preventing skin damage. However, each product only protects against one type of UV ray. Sunscreen is designed to protect against the UVA rays that cause wrinkling and premature skin aging. Sunblock is formulated to protect against the UVB rays that cause sunburn.

Broad spectrum sunscreen prevents skin damage caused by UVA and UVB rays. It works by protecting the skin’s surface and deeper skin tissues in one product and is highly recommended by dermatologists. Broad spectrum protection is also available in some sunblock products. When shopping for sunscreen, be sure to look for “broad spectrum” on the packaging. Otherwise, it won’t protect against both types of UV rays.

The Federal Drug Administration regulates sunscreen to make sure they work. Watch the FDA’s message for consumers.

What is SPF and Why is it Important?

SPF rates the effectiveness of a sunscreen’s ability to filter out UV radiation. It does this by measuring the amount of UV rays required to produce sunburn on sunscreen-protected skin compared to unprotected skin. If you applied a sunscreen rated SPF 30, it would take 30 times longer to burn the skin than if you were not wearing sunscreen.
However, SPF does not measure how long you can stay in the sun without getting burned. Instead, it measures the total amount of exposure to the sun and how well the sunscreen protects against it.

The most important thing to know about SPF is the higher the number the more protection you get from UV rays. For example, SPF 50+ sunscreens filter 98% of UV radiation, while SPF 30 sunscreens filter 96.7%. That may seem like a negligible amount, but longer length of time in the sun equals higher exposure to UV rays – requiring more sunscreen for sunburn prevention.

When Should You Wear Sunscreen?

Using sunscreen is often associated with the summer months when the sun shines brightly and days are long and hot. However, temperature and sunshine have nothing to do with sunburn risk. You can get sunburned any time of year if you stay out too long in the sun without following to sun safety precautions. You can even get burned on a cloudy day. No matter what time of year, it’s a good idea to apply sunscreen when you plan to be outdoors for any length of time.

Misperceptions About Sunscreen Usage

Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation exists that contributes to incorrect use of sunscreen. To avoid painful sunburn or long-term skin damage, be aware of these common misconceptions:

False: You only have to apply sunscreen once if you rub enough into your skin.
True: Sunscreen wears off after a while, especially when swimming or playing in water. At minimum it should be reapplied every 2 hours.

False: A fake tan product will protect your skin from the sun.
True: Rubbing lotion on your skin that creates a fake tan does not block out UV rays and won’t protect against sunburn or damaged skin.

False: You don’t need sunscreen when using cosmetics with an SPF rating.
True: This is true only when the cosmetic has a SPF 30 rating or higher. Most do not.

False: You can stay out longer in the sun when wearing SPF 50+ than you can with SPF 30.
True: SPF refers to the effectiveness of the sunscreen, not the length of time you can safely stay in the sun. Both should be reapplied as necessary.

False: You won’t get sunburned if you tan easily.
Truth: Skin darkens to protect against the damage caused by UV rays. Tanning does not eliminate the risk of skin cancer or the need to wear sunscreen.

Sunscreen FAQs:

What is SPF?

SPF stands for “sun protection factor.” It measures how long it takes for UVB rays to burn the skin when wearing sunscreen compared to the time it takes without sunscreen.

All sunscreen products must have the SPF number on the label or container. In general:

  • SPF below 15 = low protection
  • SPF 15 to 29 = medium protection
  • SPF 30 to 49 = high protection
  • SPF is over 50 = very high protection

Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.

How do I know if a sunscreen or sunblock is broad spectrum?

Look for “Broad Spectrum” on the packaging. Only sunscreens that pass the Federal Drug Administration Broad Spectrum test are allowed to carry the label.

Are sunscreens safe for babies and children?

Babies under 6 months of age should have minimal exposure to the sun. When out in the sun, cover the child’s skin with cool, breathable clothing or blankets. Dermatologists recommend sunblock or mineral sunscreens for children 6 months and older because they don’t get absorbed into the skin.

How can I relieve the discomfort of a mild sunburn?

Pure aloe vera gel (without alcohol as an ingredient if buying in a bottle) provides relief from the pain and itching by helping the skin retain moisture. Honey, yogurt and cold compresses can also provide short-term relief. When the redness and pain/itching subside, continue to moisturize the skin until it looks and feels normal.

What is the difference between sunburn and sun poisoning?

A mild sunburn typically lasts a few days. If a sunburn continues to be painful and develops blisters or a rash, it could indicate sun poisoning. Mild sun poisoning can be treated with ibuprofen, cold compresses of equal parts milk and water, aloe vera, and by drinking plenty of liquids. More severe cases can include swelling, fever, chills, nausea, and disorientation. When these symptoms occur, seek prompt medical attention.

Can sunscreens affect my psoriasis or other skin condition?

The chemicals in sunscreens that absorb into the skin may aggravate psoriasis or other skin conditions. If you have dry skin or psoriasis, dermatologists recommend using a mineral-based sunblock that doesn’t get absorbed into the skin. If your skin is prone to rosacea or allergies, avoid sunscreens that contain fragrances, preservatives, oxybenzone or PABA.

How can I prevent sunburns from reoccurring?

Practice good sun safety every day:

  • Minimize sun exposure between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.
  • Apply sunscreen/sunblock before going outside
  • Wear clothes that keep out the sun
  • Apply SPF lip balm to protect your lips
  • Look for shady spots to avoid the sun

Protect Your Skin with a Team Who Cares

Sunscreen alone is not sunburn prevention solution, but it does help protect against the short- and long-term effects of sun exposure. If you get a sunburn that lasts more than a few days or develops signs of sun poisoning, such as swelling, blisters, fever, and dehydration, be sure to visit your provider.

Same-day appointments are available at TrueCare so you can talk with a doctor about relieving the pain and itching of a sunburn or addressing possible symptoms of sun poisoning. We also offer pediatric care so you can talk to a pediatrician about the best sunscreen for your child and other ways to prevent sun damage. Come rain or sun, TrueCare is your healthy skin partner!

TrueCare provides a number of health services for children, adults, and the elderly, including wellness checks. Our providers are committed to quality comprehensive care with heart. Contact your local TrueCare health center today to set up your appointment to improve your heart health.


>> American Academy of Dermatology
>> Federal Drug Administration
>> U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images, and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you read on this website.

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Jessica L. Randalls, PA
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