Summertime is a time for fun in the sun, but sunburn can mean the fun stops. Sunburn is painful because it is a sign of damage to your skin. It happens when ultraviolet light from the sun—or a tanning bed or other artificial source—burns and destroys skin tissue cells.
The best approach is to avoid sunburn in the first place. The most effective way to do this is, obviously, to stay indoors and not be exposed to sunlight, but you miss out on a lot of summer activities that way. Most people don’t need to go that far, however. What you do need to do is stay in the shade when you can, perhaps carrying a parasol if you’re particularly prone to burning.
When this isn’t feasible—for example, when being in the sun is the whole point, such as at the beach—use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. If you’re especially fair-skinned or have a family history of skin cancer, you should use something stronger. Water resistant is best even if you’re not swimming; you may get splashed or perspire it off otherwise.
Apply sunscreen to all skin that is likely to be exposed at least 20 minutes before sun exposure, and reapply it every two hours. Most people need about an ounce of sunscreen (a shot-glass full) for complete coverage, more if you’re particularly tall, particularly large, or particularly exposed.
If you do get burned, the damage is already done; all you can really do at that point is deal with the discomfort. The most important things to remember for that are cool, moist, and gentle: Take a cold bath, or apply towels soaked in cool water to the affected areas. Apply moisturizing lotion liberally, but be sure to avoid products with alcohol or benzocaine. Alcohol will only dry the skin out further—and not just when you apply it topically, but also when you drink it—while benzocaine has been linked to a possibly fatal condition. continue with moisturizer once the skin has begun to peel, and be gentle with the area. Peeling is normal; it gets rid of already damaged skin.
Don’t peel or pop blisters. This slows down healing, and popped blisters are prone to infection. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin can also help. See a doctor if you have symptoms of sun poisoning, such as dizziness, nausea, rapid heartrate, dehydration, light sensitivity or severe blisters, or if sunburn signs are accompanied by fever or last longer than a few days.