Sunburn: symptoms, duration, effective treatments and how to avoid it


 Sunburns are not trivial. To prevent them, and avoid complications, it is imperative to protect your skin from the sun by avoiding prolonged exposure and applying a suitable cream.

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With the arrival of summer, the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies are filled with sun protection products. These creams are now very effective, adapted to each profile, but they are often not applied in sufficient quantities, and regularly enough. However, they are essential to protect the skin from the harmful effects of UV rays.

1. What is a sunburn? Definition

Sunburn is a burn caused by the sun. "This burn is created by solar radiation that is not suitable for life on Earth and that has passed through the barrier of the Earth's atmosphere," explains Dr. Gaucher. "It is mainly the so-called ultraviolet rays (because they are beyond the visible spectrum, shorter than the shortest visible light wavelength, blue-violet) that are responsible for it," she adds. The shorter the rays are, the more toxic they are for humans and in particular for their skin, their retina, and their mucous membranes, directly exposed.

The burn can be of the first degree (solar erythema) or the second degree (bullous eruption)

Solar erythema

The first-degree burn caused by the sun is called "solar erythema". "It is expressed by a simple redness with a sensation of heat and burning, calmed by cool applications, and by a slight swelling (called edema in medicine) of the skin", the dermatologist explains.

The bullous eruption

The second-degree burn is called "bullous rash". "It results in a redness with a slight swelling too, but covered with "bubbles" filled with a clear lemon-yellow liquid linked to the detachment of the burned epidermis", explains Dr. Gaucher. The bubble is similar to that caused by a heel blister, which is also a burn but caused by friction.

2. The causes of sunburn

Sunburn corresponds to the destruction of keratinocytes, the cells of the epidermis. "These cells protect us, a little like a thin shell, from external aggressions and constitute the skin covering of the human body. When ultraviolet rays attack the skin, they manage to break the cell barrier and attack the nucleus of our cells," explains the dermatologist. The attack on the nucleus of the cells results in more or less short-term cell death.

"The cells that are not dead (so those that are not eliminated a few days later in the form of "peeling" of dead skin) will be responsible for the tanning and the change of color of the epidermis, which protects itself by installing a cap of melanin (black pigment) above all the nuclei of its cells on the surface," she adds. It is precisely this "cap" of black melanin placed on the nucleus of the cells of the epidermis that gives the darker color of the skin called tanning. It disappears in an average of two weeks on Caucasian skins.

3. The symptoms of sunburn

The symptoms of sunburn are:

  • redness of the skin
  • swelling of the skin in this area
  • the sensation of heat and the heat objectively observed on the burned area
  • Sensitivity of the skin in that area (to touch and contact)

4. Complications of sunburn

Sunburn is not harmless and can have short and long-term consequences. "The first complication is that of all burns, namely the appearance of a depigmented (white) scar after healing of the burn. It can be repigmented afterward, but sometimes this persists for several summer seasons...and sometimes a hyperpigmented (brown) spot can also persist for several years," explains the dermatologist.

In the second stage, the consequences are those of premature aging in the area that has been burned by UV. "This can range from brown spots to skin cancers, which occur about ten years earlier than average on areas that have suffered repeated "sunburns"," warns Dr. Gaucher.

5. Sunburn: young children and fair skin are more vulnerable

We are not all equal when it comes to sunburn and some people are more vulnerable than others, those whose skin has less capacity to defend itself against attack by harmful rays.

  • Sick skin

Sick skin or skin with a genetic abnormality that prevents them from producing the melanin that protects the cell nucleus against ultraviolet rays (e.g. "night children", people with a rare genetic disease or xeroderma pigmentosum, people with vitiligo) are more vulnerable to sunburn.

  • Babies and young children up to 5 years old
  • Fair-skinned people

Light skins are genetically less equipped to produce this little "melanin cap" above the nucleus of the epidermal cells to protect them against attacks from ultraviolet radiation. A genetically programmed faculty.

Humans are classified into 6 phototypes or skin types according to their ability to react to ultraviolet attacks on their skin and retina. "Phototypes 1 and 2 are the most exposed to sunburn. Phototypes 3 to 6 can also "catch" sunburns, but it is not systematic and it occurs after much more aggressive exposures (longer and at "forbidden" hours of the day)", details Dr. Gaucher.

6. The treatment of sunburn

"To treat a sunburn, you must understand that it is a burn and treat it as such," the dermatologist reminds us. We, therefore, adapt the treatment to the degree of this burn.

"A first-degree burn is treated with thick layers of healing ointment such as the so-called "Dalibour" ointment from the Pharmacy Codex, which is a mixture of water, sweet almond oil, copper sulfate, and zinc oxide, with anti-inflammatory action," recommends Dr. Gaucher. She also recommends spraying SEROZINC (a mixture of thermal water and zinc) each time a new layer of ointment is applied to remove the previous layer. Not to be done more often than every 2 hours, however.

"Natural medicine practitioners can use green clay in thick poultices, but it must not be left to dry on the skin and must be removed while it is still in the paste. To do this, the application of a stretch film on the clay poultice is very practical", also advises the dermatologist who adds that one can take APIS MELLIFICA 7 CH granules to be sucked every hour as long as the sensation of heat and burning persists.

The management is a little different if it is a second-degree burn, which may require medical consultation. "It is also treated with thick layers of ointment, but if there are large bubbles and large detachments on the surface, it is best to call a health professional who will know how to use instruments and a sterile environment to cut the top of the bubbles and apply a dressing afterward," explains Dr. Gaucher.

FLAMMAZINE ointment, which contains silver nitrate (an anti-microbial), is also indicated in the treatment of second-degree burns because it will destroy dead tissue that could prevent the appearance of new cells and therefore healing. "In this case, it will be necessary to make a burn dressing with a thick layer of ointment, covered with a layer of sterile compresses, then a Nylex or Velpeau bandage, maintained without applying a sticky dressing directly on the skin," recommends the dermatologist.

In parallel with the local treatment, the patient can take a homeopathic treatment (which can replace or complement the antibiotic treatment that may be necessary): granules of CANTHARIS 9 CH, 2 granules every hour until the bubbles heal and HEPAR SULFUR 7 CH, 2 granules every two hours or so until the wounds heal. "When the sunburn is accompanied by heat stroke or "insolation", it will be necessary to add BELLADONNA 9 CH 2 granules every hour, and to apply towels soaked with cool water on the head, changing them as soon as they become hot", she adds.

7. How to avoid sunburn?

Sunburns can be avoided if you follow certain instructions:

  • Never expose your skin directly to the sun or by reverberation on water or its by-products between two hours before and two hours after the sun's zenith in the place where you are (it varies according to the place on the planet and the season). This is between noon and 4 p.m. in France in the summer and between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. in France in the winter.
  • Wear protective clothing (thin or openwork clothing may not provide enough protection): cotton or natural fibers that are thick enough and light in color to reflect ultraviolet rays and not let them penetrate.
  • Reverberation can be harmful to the face if it is not you should regularly apply an anti-UV screen cream to the parts not covered by clothing.
  • Gradually accustom your skin to ultraviolet radiation by tanning it without sunburn through repeated short periods of exposure (10, then 15, then 20, then 25 minutes, no more) at times when ultraviolet rays are not present in the sun's rays (before 10 a.m. in the morning or after 5 or 6 p.m. in the evening, for example).
  • Eat anti-oxidants in your diet to help your skin defend itself: colored vegetables and fruits (orange, red, yellow especially) because they contain carotene.
  • Take food supplements containing these antioxidants in sufficient quantities because our food today unfortunately does not contain enough antioxidants.

Thanks to Dr. Catherine Gaucher, dermatologist and venereologist.