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Ask the Pharmacist

July 8, 2024

Q: I was outside most of the day on a cloudy day and I now have a nasty sunburn. Can we really get that sunburned when the sun is not out? What can I do to help my skin?

A: Summer is in full swing, and with it, comes the increased risk of getting a sunburn - a common and painful skin condition. Many believe that sunburns can occur only on bright, sunny days, but it is, indeed, possible to get a sunburn on very cloudy days. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a hot or warm day to experience a sunburn either. Also, the sun is strongest at higher altitudes so be mindful if you find yourself up in the mountains hiking or skiing.

Sunburns are caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. There are two main types of UV radiation that reach the Earth's surface: UVA and UVB. While UVB rays are primarily responsible for causing sunburn, both UVA and UVB rays can damage the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer.

Though we cannot see much of the sun on a cloudy day, those UV rays still manage to find us. Clouds can block some of the sun's UV rays, but not all of them. Up to 80 per cent of UV rays can penetrate through clouds and reach your skin. This phenomenon, known as the "broken cloud effect," can sometimes even enhance UV exposure as rays reflect off the edges of clouds, increasing their intensity. Therefore, it's crucial to protect your skin even on overcast days.

If you do get a sunburn, it's important to treat it promptly to reduce the discomfort and help the healing process. Here are some steps you can take:
 
  • Cool the skin: Apply a cool, damp cloth to the sunburned area or take a cool bath. Avoid using ice directly on the skin, as this can cause further damage.
  • Moisturize: Use a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer or aloe vera gel to soothe the skin. Moisturizers with added Vitamins C and E can help reduce inflammation. Don’t skimp on the moisturizer but rather apply a generous amount.
  • Stay hydrated: Sunburn draws fluid to the skin's surface and away from the rest of the body. Therefore, it is important to drink extra water to help prevent dehydration.
  • Avoid further sun exposure: Stay out of the sun until the sunburn has healed. Wear loose, protective clothing if you need to go outside.
  • Pain relief: Sunburns can be quite painful. Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, can help. Anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, can help reduce both pain and inflammation. Not everyone can, or should, take these medications so if you are unsure, check with your pharmacist or other health-care professional.
  • Avoid harsh products: Steer clear of products containing alcohol, as they can dry out and further irritate the skin. Also, avoid using petroleum-based products, which can trap heat in the skin. The age-old remedy of putting butter or oil on a burn has been debunked and can worsen the burn.
  • Do not pop blisters: If your sunburn has caused blisters, it's best to leave them intact. Popping blisters can lead to infection and slow down the healing process.

As is the case with many ailments, prevention is key. The best way to accomplish this is to use sunscreen. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Make sure to apply it generously and evenly to all exposed skin, and reapply every two hours, or more often, if you are swimming or sweating. Keep your sunscreen in your bathroom and get into the habit of applying it as you get ready for the day.

Clothing can provide an additional layer of protection. Wear long sleeves, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses. Look for clothing with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) label for added assurance.

Whenever possible, stay in the shade, especially during peak sun hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Use umbrellas, trees, or other shelters to limit direct sun exposure.

There are many surfaces that are reflective, such as water, sand, snow and even concrete. Be mindful if you are surrounded by these surfaces as these reflected UV rays can increase your sun exposure, unknowingly.

Many radio stations and weather apps display the current UV index which provides a forecast of the expected risk of overexposure to UV radiation. A higher UV index means greater potential for skin and eye damage. Often, the UV index is lower in the early morning or late in the afternoon so it would be wise to plan your outdoor activities during these times.

Alas, there are some medications that can increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun, making you more prone to sunburn. These include certain antibiotics, antihistamines, diuretics (water pills) and acne treatments, to name a few. Check with your pharmacist or health-care provider if you are taking any medications and are unsure about their sun-related side effects.

Sunburns can be more than just a temporary discomfort; they can lead to long-term skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer. Now that you know that clouds can give a false sense of security, protect your skin each and every day, regardless of the weather. By doing so, you can continue to enjoy the outdoors safely.

For more information about this or any other health-related questions, contact the pharmacists at Gordon Pharmasave, Your Health and Wellness Destination. Also check the website at www.gordon-pharmasave.com/ and the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/GordonPharmasave/

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