When you find yourself with a sunburn, don't apply ice to the burned area: Ice constricts the blood vessels and possibly aggravates the skin further. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Let's face it, sometimes the beach party fun gets a little too real, and next thing you know, you're rocking a lobster look you didn't order. Welcome to sunburn city, where your skin just feels as if it’s on fire.

Camilla Cole, a Dubai-based British entrepreneur still remembers the time she didn’t put ‘enough’ sunscreen and went to the beach. “It felt as if my face was switching colours between red and purple. Yet, that wasn’t the worst part. I developed blisters, that began to crack,” she says, recalling her rather gruesome experience. As a result, her sunscreen has become a faithful companion. However, that appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. Others like Cathy Alexander, an Abu Dhabi-based freelancer developed an obstinate fever and a redness that refused to leave her, till she was finally hospitalised.

Moral of the story: Sometimes even the most dedicated sunscreen enthusiasts can get caught with their guard down.

So, how exactly does this sunburn business work? Let's dive into the science behind it....

What is a sunburn?

After the skin is damaged by the UV rays, the skin has to recruit additional cells to repair the affected skin cells or create new ones. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Akbar Ali, the head of dermatology at the Dubai-based Canadian Hospital, explains what really leads to a sunburn. “It is primarily caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun,” he says. There are two kinds of UV rays that cause particular havoc: Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB). While the UVB rays damage the outer skin layers and are mainly responsible for sunburn, the UVA rays can cause cellular damage and lead to premature aging or skin cancer.

In the cases of severe sunburns, there is extreme redness, severe pain, significant blistering, and systemic symptoms like fever, chills, nausea, and dehydration. This may require medical attention...

- Akbar Ali Head of dermatology Canadian hospital Dubai

After the skin is damaged by the UV rays, the skin has to recruit additional cells to repair the affected skin cells or create new ones. This leads to inflammation and the redness, he says. The pain is quite intense in the first 48 hours after overexposure to the sun. Worse, it doesn’t show immediately, as Zaheer Abbas, a dermatologist based at Skin111, Dubai points out. You can spend hours in the sun, only to return home and find your skin turning red. Sometimes, even blisters form.

As both the specialists explain, there are two kinds of sunburn:

First degree sunburn: These burns damage the outermost layer of the skin called the epidermis. First-degree sunburns tend to cause redness, inflammation and tenderness.

Second degree sunburn: These burns affect both the epidermis and the layer beneath it called the dermis. In addition to pain, discoloration and swelling, second-degree burns can also cause blistering, fevers and chills.

In very rare cases, a person can suffer third-degree sunburns, which affect all skin layers and can damage nerves.

You can spend hours in the sun, only to return home and find your skin turning red. Sometimes, even blisters form. Image Credit: Shutterstock

How to protect yourself

For starters, here’s what you shouldn’t do: Don’t apply ice, advises Abbas. The ice causes blood vessels to constrict, which limits blood flow to the already damaged skin. This can slow down the healing process and potentially worsen the sunburn. Moreover, the extreme cold from ice can irritate and damage the sensitive, sunburned skin, resulting in inflammation and even frostbite-like symptoms.

So, opt for cool compresses, as Aashima Singh, a Dubai-based dermatologist suggests. Apply a cool compress made with a damp cloth instead of directly using ice. To make a compress, soak a cloth in cool water, wring out the excess moisture, then apply the cloth to the burn. This is quite an effective way to soothe sunburned skin.

For larger burns, you can also soak in a cool bath, because that lowers your skin temperature. Remember you need cool, not cold water, reminds Singh. Soak in it, till relief sets in. Avoid using harsh soaps as it can aggravate the burn.

Aloe vera for some healing

Keeping your skin moisturised is the key to recovery. Singh explains why, “Sunburns damage the skin's outer layer, which disrupts its natural ability to retain moisture. This leads to dehydration, making the skin feel dry, tight, and itchy. So, moisturisers create a barrier on the skin's surface that helps trap water and prevent further dehydration. This promotes healing by allowing the damaged skin cells to repair themselves more efficiently.”

Additionally, some moisturisers contain ingredients like aloe vera that have soothing properties to reduce inflammation and discomfort. “So, slather on some aloe vera gel several times in a day, as it is a time-tested sunburn healer that soothes the skin on contact. You can even make cool compresses with chilled aloe vera, after it has been refrigerated for a while,” adds Singh.

Oatmeal bath

Oatmeal baths are actually a surprisingly effective way to soothe sunburns. According to Ali, oatmeal contains compounds called avenanthramides which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This can help in soothing the skin, reduce inflammation, burning and redness. Oatmeal also has a colloidal, or rather a finely ground form that forms a gel-like substance in water. This helps to create a barrier on the skin's surface, trapping moisture and preventing further drying.

How to do this? Well, you can make your own colloidal oatmeal bath by grinding up a cup of unflavoured oats in a food processor and adding them to two cups of warm water. Dissolve the ground oats until the solution is milky, then draw a bath and add the oat mixture.

There are many claims that milk helps too in easing the pain in sunburn, owing to the protein and fat content that soothe the skin and retain moisture. “There isn’t enough scientific evidence to support this,” adds Abbas. “In fact, it can be counter-productive, as the proteins could irritate the already inflamed skin.”

Last, hydrate

Drink lots of water. Your body needs it. After a sunburn, your body needs more fluids with the healing process, adds Abbas. The sunburn brings the moisture toward the surface of the skin, which can lead to dehydration. So, keep drinking water, as it helps to heal the skin and soothe dryness and itching.

Apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 or higher. Image Credit: Shutterstock

When do you need to see a doctor?

If you find that your skin is blistering, don’t hesitate. Get medical help immediately.

How to prevent a sunburn, as the specialists explain:

• Minimise direct sun exposure between 9am and 3pm, as that’s when the sun’s rays are the strongest.

• Clothing can be your best friend in the fight against sunburn. Opt for lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and pants made from breathable fabrics like cotton.

• Apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 or higher.

• Reapply sunscreen as recommended on the bottle.

• Stay in the shade when outdoors, such as beneath trees or use umbrellas.