With the warm weather and bright sunshine of summer comes sunburns, a common condition anyone can get from being out under the sun for too long. These painful burns can make summertime quite annoying, but why do we get them? Read on to learn more:

Why do we Get Sunburns?

Sunburns are caused by overexposure to ultraviolet light, specifically from the sun. However, sunburns can also be caused by light from sun-like devices, like tanning beds or sun lamps. Our bodies do have a natural form of protection against the sun’s rays-- melanin. When exposed to sunlight, our skin begins to produce more melanin, causing a tan. However, tanned skin (or melanin in any amount) cannot fully protect us from the sun’s rays. Too much UV light will burn the skin, regardless of how much melanin it has.

Avoiding Sunburn

To avoid sunburn, staying inside and in the shade can help reduce risk, but the best solution is to use sunscreen. Sunscreen acts as an extra layer of protection from the sun’s UV rays, and their Sun Protection Factor or SPF grades all sunscreens.


The SPF acts as a general measure to show how much UV radiation is required to create a sunburn. The higher the SPF, the more UV rays it can withstand. However, many other factors must be considered before buying the highest SPF sunscreen on the shelf. For reference, consider asking yourself these questions:

  • How long do I plan on being outside? If you’re outside for more extended periods, you’ll need to reapply sunscreen regularly.
  • What time of day will it be when I am outside? Depending on the sun’s position in the sky, you may be exposed to more UV rays than at other times of the day. Typically, midday is when UV rays are the strongest.
  • How much sunscreen do I plan to apply? It is recommended to apply at least two tablespoons of sunscreen on your body before going out.
  • What is my skin tone, and how does my skin react to sunlight? People who have very light skin and burn easily will need a bit more sunscreen than others.

Why do Some Sunscreens Have a Lower SPF?

With the many different kinds of sunscreen on the market, some may think it best to invest in the highest SPF possible. But what about sunscreens with lower SPF? According to Dr. Steven Q. Wang of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, higher SPF sunscreens often lead to a false sense of security. Many people who use high SPF sunscreens will stay out in the sun longer and avoid reapplication every two hours. In the end, Wang suggests that a combination of sunscreen and other methods of sun protection (like hats or long, cotton fabrics) that best helps people avoid sun damage. It is best to find a sunscreen that fits your skin type best and use it alongside sun-safe clothing and other suncare strategies.

Treating Sunburns

If you do get sunburned, there are quite a few steps you can take to help your skin heal as best it can while reducing pain and discomfort.

  • Aloe vera and moisturizers that contain aloe vera are excellent ways to cool the skin and reduce dryness.
  • Soaking the burned area in cool water or taking cool showers can help relieve pain. After washing, pat your skin dry and apply aloe vera or aloe moisturizer to help lock in moisture.
  • Staying hydrated will help keep your skin from drying out.
  • If you’re in a lot of pain, consider taking ibuprofen.
  • Do not scratch or pick at the burned area.
  • Be sure to be gentle with your skin! Sunburns take time to heal, and putting extra pressure on them may slow the healing process. Additionally, keep sunburned areas away from sunlight as best you can. Covering up with tightly woven but light fabrics can help reduce sun exposure and allow sunburns to heal without interruption.
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