What is a sunburn? Are we taking its effects lightly? Dr Sam Hay explains how to protect our kids’ sensitive skin beyond slip, slop and slap and what to do if they do get sunburnt.
For some cultures, especially Aussies, that little tinge of red, that ‘healthy summer glow’, may all seem innocent and sweet, but it’s not. With sunburn, it does irreparable damage to the skin, which adds up over time.
While we in Singapore do not typically get regular tans, we carry on with outdoor activities and the sweltering sun does get on our skin quite the same too.
In fact, Singapore is known as one of the world’s highest ultraviolet (UV) index scores, and children in Singapore are likely to be exposed to high levels of UV radiation, representing a variety of skin types.
As parents, we need to work hard to protect our kids’ skin—but sometimes there’s only so much we can do. So rather than judge, let us step through the sunburn basics and work on minimising risk to our kids skin as much as possible.
What is a sunburn?
It’s estimated that over a third of Aussies have been sunburnt in the last twelve months – that’s massive!
Sunburn results from damage to the skin by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. It’s around us every day, and it’s something you can’t see or feel. It reflects off surfaces, especially sand, water and snow. It even passes through clouds, fooling parents on cloudy days.
Basically, sunburn is damaged and inflamed skin. It means you’ve been exposed to more UV radiation than the skin can handle. Our skin’s defences against the sun are mainly made up of melanin, a pigment that absorbs the damaging radiation and gives our skin colour.
Ultimately you can blame your mum and dad for how badly you burn (or how easily you tan), because we all produce different amounts of melanin, and it’s all determined by genetics.
The less melanin we have in our skin, the greater the inflammatory reaction, and therefore more red, swollen, and painful skin – the sunburn. Put simply, the fairer (paler) you are, the more chance of quick fire sunburns.
But that doesn’t mean people with darker skin can’t get sun damage! Everyone is at risk from the sun.
What is a sunburn? Red, inflamed skin from sunburn is painful. | Photo: iStock
UV Index is a factor
Log in to any news website and you’ll find weather forecasts, which stretch way beyond max temperatures for the day. Sure, hotter days generally come with more sunburn risk, but the key is actually the UV index – so pay closer attention to that.
It’s easy: the higher the index – the faster your skin will burn.
Fast fact: you can get burnt on overcast days as up to 80 per cent of UV rays pass through clouds.
Watch the clock
The time it takes to cause sunburn varies with a number of factors:
- Skin type. Fairer skin burns faster.
- Time of day. UV radiation tends to peak through the middle of the day.
- Time of year. UV radiation varies through the year. But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk in winter.
- Where you are. UV radiation reflects off surfaces like water, sand, cement, and snow. It bounces all around us, so just because the kids have hats on or sit under the umbrella, they’re still at risk.
Stages of sunburn
Once sun exposure causes any redness, there’s inflammation within the top epidermis layer of skin – which is akin to the old term of a ‘first-degree’ burn.
This redness usually starts glowing within a couple of hours, and will continue to develop for the next couple of days. The redness comes from increased blood flow, which makes the skin swollen, tender, and hot to touch.
More significant burns may cause the skin to peel. After the inflammation settles, the deeper skin cells rapidly grow to replace the dead cells of the top layer. This leads to large sheets of the top dead cells peeling away.
Increase that UV exposure and blisters will occur – a superficial partial-thickness burn, or even deep partial-thickness when catastrophic. Now parents, these are bad burns. They aren’t a right of passage. They aren’t something to let your kids experience just because you did.
What is a sunburn: Skin peeling is a very bad sign. | Image: iStock
So what, it’s just a little sunburn…
This is exactly the attitude that needs changing in Australia, as well as in many parts of the world. You see, it all comes down to skin cancer risk. And the more sun burns our kids have – the higher their future risk.
In a nutshell, all that damage and inflammation to the skin permanently alters the DNA of skin cells, which can ultimately lead to cancers. Some might be the simple basal cell carcinomas (BCCs), squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs), or even the most dangerous melanomas.
- Five or more sun burns doubles your risk of developing melanoma.
- But only one blistering burn is needed to double the risk – that’s scary!
Babies are extra special
A baby’s skin is ridiculously sensitive and will easily burn. In fact, the risk of sunburn and future skin cancer is so high, it’s recommended that babies are NEVER exposed to sun before their first birthday, or at least the first six months.
They should be constantly cared for in the shade, and if they are out and about, covered up with long pants, sleeves, hats, and sunscreen on any exposed areas.
And parents, if you ask any good doctor and dermatologist – these rules are non-negotiable.
From time-to-time I do put my grumpy-doctor hat on and get a little (shall I say) ‘firm’ with parents who have roasted their kids out in the sun. But it comes from a place of parental (and doctorly!) guilt – we’ve all been there.
So it goes without saying, we should never let our kids get sun burnt at all. Every one of our kids who step outside should slip on some clothes, slap on a hat, slop on some sunscreen, slide on some sunnies, and seek out that shade.
Protect the little ones AND yourself. | Image: iStock
But sometimes they’ll get a little burnt, so what can we do about it?
Any treatment you use should be all about soothing discomfort whilst the body does its job, as there’s no ‘cure’.
Keep kids cool, but not too cold! Cold compresses held against burnt areas are great for soothing pain, but be careful of putting ice directly on the skin. A cool bath or shower can help as well, but not for too long.
Avoid using soaps as they can dry the skin further and are irritating – which will only make discomfort worse.
Use a moisturiser (no alcohol) over affected areas. It’s best applied just after they get out of the bath or shower as it helps to trap water within the top layer of skin. Some also swear that aloe vera works well. Never apply butter!
If kids are really uncomfortable some ibuprofen or paracetamol can help ease the pain and improve a nights sleep.
Ensure kids are drinking plenty, because that burn could just be the first sign of a significant heat exposure, which can lead to dehydration.
Never pop blisters. Ever. The blister lid keeps the fragile skin underneath clean and sterile. And whilst we’re on the topic of blisters – their presence, even just one, indicates that more sever burn and requires a check from your doctor.
And lastly – learn from the lesson! Keep your kids out of the sun, apply sunscreen every couple of hours, and allow it to absorb fully before jumping in the water.
Peeling sunburnt skin
The peeling is part of the natural healing process of the skin, and no cream can prevent it.
Now mums, this is where you MUST resist the urge to pull and tug at the loose bits! There should NEVER be a prize for the biggest sheet you can pull off. Just leave it alone to shed in it’s own time, as it gives the new skin underneath plenty of time to mature.
Lastly, keep the newly exposed skin clean and moist, even using an antiseptic cream.
Bottom line, just be smart this summer.
This article was first published in Kidspot and was edited and republished on theAsianparent with permission.