What Really Causes a Sunburn (and how to treat it fast!)

With the summer sun still beating down, spending quality time outdoors is a given. But whether we forget to slather on SPF or simply have skin whiter than snow, many fall victim to nasty, no-fun sunburns. Find out what actually causes the skin to burn to a pesky crisp, and how to soothe the sore in no time.

There’s nothing to laugh about when it comes to this type of roasting. Sunburns are most common among adults 18 to 29 years old (guilty as charged), with 65 percent of white adults reporting at least one sunburn per year.

Surprise! It’s not the heat that causes the burn — it’s excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. When exposed to UV rays released from the sun, the skin produces melanin, a substance that protects us from the sun and gives our skin its color. However, when we come in contact with too many UV rays (hello, beach bums), the body can't produce enough melanin to protect the skin. It normally takes a few hours for a sunburn to actually become visible, so we may be in the red even before the burn even appears.

But it goes beyond red skin and weird tan lines. In some cases, blisters can form, and the skin may even swell — a condition called edema. In more severe situations, sunburn can turn into sun poisoning, which can cause fevers, chills, and nausea. How we react to the sun (aka how much melanin we can produce) is mainly based on genetics, but we should all slather on the sunscreen just to be safe.

The best way to treat a sunburn is to prevent it from happening in the first place! Make sure to apply sunscreen over the entire body (especially if headed to the nude beach). Any part of the bod can be burned, including earlobes, the scalp, lips, and eyes. But if it’s a little too late, try these tips to treat the burn:

  • Cool off. Lightly apply a cold compress (like a wet washcloth) to the burned skin. Definitely do not apply ice, which may irritate the skin even more.
  • Soothe the sore. Try applying some aloe to help reduce skin inflammation.  Skip skin products that contain alcohol — this may dry out skin even more.
  • Hit the pharmacy. If the pain persists, try taking an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or aspirin. Or skip the pill and try a gel; in one study, the topical NSAID diclofenac helped decrease the pain and swelling of slightly sunburned folks.
  • Don’t pop the blisters! Once you pop, the fun will stop. If blisters appear, breaking them will only increase the risk of infection. Instead, cover them lightly with gauze. 
  • Be smart in the sun. This is a no brainer. If you have a sunburn, stick to the shade! Apply a layer of aloe and some sunscreen for extra protection, too. And while you’re at it, chow down on some sun-friendly foods, like salmon, dark chocolate, and tea, which all contain antioxidants that can help block UV rays from the skin.