How Bad is Your Sunburn?

May 28, 2021

Have you ever heard the phrase, “I always get a sunburn first, but my burn later turns into a tan”?

Sunshine is a large part of what makes summer a warm and fun season. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how quickly a little sun can turn into a painful sunburn, especially when so many of us enjoy that sun-kissed look.

Our skin naturally reflects the amount of sun that we are exposed to. A sunburn, and even a suntan, are signs that our skin has been damaged by ultraviolet, or UV, rays. These UV rays come from the sun and pass through our skin to alter and affect skin cells. Other signs of skin damage from the sun include dark spots, wrinkles and even skin cancer.

Dr. Michael Smock, director of the Mercy Burn Center in St. Louis, shines a light on different types of sunburns, how we can treat them and how to protect from future damage.

“It doesn’t take a long time with the intense midday sun in the summertime to cause sun damage,” he said. Depending on your skin type, sunburns can develop quickly.

For those uncertain about the severity of a sunburn, Dr. Smock explained a few characteristics that define different sunburns. “Most sunburns are first degree, meaning the skin is red, it’s painful, but it doesn’t actually blister. It may later peel off,” he said.

These kinds of sunburns can be treated with a cool shower, cool compress, over the counter pain medications or an aloe gel that contains soothing products.

Dr. Smock Discusses Differing Degrees of Sunburn

Do any of these sunburns look familiar? Here's a visual guide.

More serious are second-degree sunburns. “A second-degree burn is where the skin actually blisters and peels off in the more acute phase, or shortly after the sun exposure, with a weeping, filled blister,” Dr. Smock said. He recommends treating these second-degree sunburns with a topical antibiotic ointment or petroleum jelly. Additionally, those with extensive blisters should seek medical attention to ensure they are receiving the right care to help their skin heal.

According to Dr. Smock, “Third-degree sunburns virtually never happen.”

Most sunburns can be cared for at home. However, “If someone does have a blistering sunburn and then they develop any signs of an infection, worsening redness, worsening pain or drainage that starts to look like puss,” they should seek medical attention at an urgent care or even the emergency room, he said.

Fortunately, we can be free to adventure in the summer sun thanks to SPF sunscreen and other sun protection measures. Sunscreen contains active ingredients that protect your skin from UV radiation.

Dr. Smock recommends the use of SPF 45 or higher to protect skin from sun damage. This protection can prevent premature aging of the skin and reduce the risk of skin cancer. In addition to sunscreen, wearing UV protective clothing is another line of defense to keep your skin healthy. 

Learn more or ask a provider near you about how to protect your skin!