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Sunburn and sun protection

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Sunburn and sun protection

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    This article is a travel topic

Sunburn is a symptom of a damaged skin produced by overexposure to the sun's harmful UV-rays, and is a danger of traveling in sunny climates. Getting badly sunburnt on the first day of a sun and sand holiday can ruin the rest of your trip. In addition, sunburns and too much sun over the years can lead to skin cancer. The basal and squamous cell types aren't so bad as far as cancer goes, but its removal will leave unsightly scars. However, melanoma is just as lethal as the other deadly cancers. In the past few decades, it's become known that sunburns substantially increase the risk of melanoma.


Typically there is initial redness (erythema), followed by varying degrees of pain, both proportional in severity to the duration and intensity of exposure. After being burned, the skin may turn red 2 to 6 hours later. Pain is worst 6 to 48 hours afterward. The burn continues to develop for 24 to 72 hours after exposure. Skin peeling begins 3 to 8 days after the burn occurs. Common outcomes include tenderness, pain, edema, red and/or peeling skin, rash, nausea and fever. Sunburns may be first- or second-degree burns.

Minor sunburns typically cause nothing more than slight redness and tenderness to the affected area. In more serious cases blistering can occur. Extreme sunburns can be painful to the point of debilitation and may require hospital care.

Be careful[edit]

When travelling, you should take care to protect yourself from the sun, as it's common to spend more time outdoors. Never underestimate the power of the sun in tropical regions, the mountains, or even on an ordinary summer day around noontime.

Before you leave, try to get information on the weather conditions of the region you're traveling to, especially related to sunshine and sunpower.

Increased risks[edit]

Your susceptibility to sunburns is strongly dependent on your skin tone. People with red hair, green eyes and freckled skin are under the highest risk of contracting skin damage.

The risk of sunburn increases when the sun is directly overhead (see UV index below). It can also be increased by the intake of pharmaceutical products. Certain antibiotics, contraceptives, tranquillizers, and malaria prophylaxis provoke over-sensitivity to sunshine. Leaving the juice of lemons or other citrus fruit on your skin will increase the rapidity and intensity of a burn.

In recent years, the incidence and severity of sunburn has increased worldwide, especially in the southern hemisphere, because of damage to the ozone layer due to CFCs. Some are worried that ozone depletion and the seasonal ozone hole has led to dangerously high levels of UV radiation.

UV index[edit]

The UV index is an international standard giving information about the intensity of the sun rays. Consequently it gives an indication of the risks that these rays can provoke. The higher the value of the index, the higher the risk for sunburn.

More and more weather stations and local newspapers include a prediction of the UV values for the days to come in their forecast. However, be prepared that you will not find this information if you travel to less developed countries. It's wise to get the latest information just before you leave. There are a lot of websites where you can get UV-index predictions from all over the world.

The intensity of UV radiation is affected by the following six factors:

Angle of the sun[edit]

  • Latitude - strongest in tropics -- specifically, the northern tropics from March 21st to September 21st, and the southern tropics from September 21st to March 21st
  • Season - strongest in late spring and early summer (assuming no clouds)
  • Time of day - strongest from 9 am to 3 pm standard time (or 10 am to 4 pm where daylight savings is observed). Add half an hour if you're in the western edge of a time zone (e.g. Detroit), or subtract half an hour if you're in the eastern edge of a time zone (e.g. Chicago).

These three factors can be combined into one easy measurement. The strongest rays are when the sun is above 45 degrees in the sky. In other words, your shadow is shorter than your actual height. Short shadows mean high UV intensity.

Environmental factors[edit]

  • Altitude - UV radiation increases rapidly with altitude.
  • Weather - strongest on clear, dry days
  • Surroundings - sand, water, and snow reflect UV radiation into shaded areas, and this circumvents UV protection such as hats and umbrellas.

First day of summer[edit]

This occurs approximately on June 21st in the northern hemisphere, and December 21st in the southern hemisphere. Outside the tropics, it could bring the highest level of UV radiation of the entire year. Of course, the atmosphere hasn't had time to fully warm up to the peak of summer yet, and many places are still cloudy and cool. However, if it happens to be sunny, this is the time you need UV protection the most. On the first day of summer, the earth has completed shifting its axis by 23.5 degrees, and that brings tropical-like UV rays to the temperate zones.

  • All locations in the tropics have the sun directly overhead at noon twice each year, and on an annual basis receive as much UV radiation as the equator does (assuming equal environmental factors).
  • On the first day of summer, locations in the temperate zones (up to 47 degrees latitude) could receive more UV radiation than the equator. Virtually all of Italy, New Zealand, and the eastern United States is below 47 degrees. In the west, the U.S.-Canadian border is at 49 degrees.
  • Locations between 47 degrees and the Arctic/Antarctic Circle could receive as much UV radiation on the first day of summer as the tropics do on the other side of the equator (their winter). If it’s a clear, sunny day on June 21st in Reykjavik, Iceland, it will have slightly more intense UV rays than Rio de Janeiro. This is due to Reykjavik being closer to the Tropic of Cancer (23.5 degrees north) than Rio.

Fortunately as summer progresses, the earth has re-shifted its axis more in line with the equator. The real danger is that a fair-skinned person who hasn’t been exposed for months spends time out in the sun in the late spring or early summer unprotected. They may mistakenly think the UV radiation isn't so bad yet, when in fact, it's even worse.


Protecting yourself is the best you can do. Here is some advice that could help you.


Sunglasses are a must in bright sunlight, and especially in areas where the surroundings reflect sunlight, such as beaches, glaciers, and deserts.

Travel Warning WARNING: Wearing sunglasses with no UV protection causes more damage to your eyes than not wearing sunglasses at all, so make sure your sunglasses are from a reputable, UV-certified brand.

Also make sure your sunglasses leave no gaps in the field of vision: If you gaze downward and can see past the sunglasses, your eyes will still be exposed to some UV radiation. In environments with high UV intensity, such as high altitudes, use ski goggles rather than sunglasses.

Though counter intuitive, clear or light tinted sunglasses offer better protection than dark tinted ones, since a) your natural aversion to sunlight is preserved, and b) your pupils remain constricted, letting less light into your eyes.


Clothing is by far the most effective defense against the sun, but not all clothing is UV resistant, and you can get burnt even while wearing some clothing.

When travelling in a tropical environment, wear a large hat or headscarf, a white or beige long sleeved shirt made of thick cotton, and a pair of long trousers. Avoid wearing shorts and T-shirts; use long-sleeved baggy clothing instead, which will keep you just as cool while avoiding sunburn. The back of your neck is especially prone to sunburn, so get a shirt with a collar and wear the collar upwards (or wear a cotton scarf). Wear shoes and socks when possible.

On the beach, don't take your clothing off except when swimming. Consider taking a sunshirt, and other clothing you can wear in the water. If you feel that staying fully clothed defies the whole point of beaches, wrap yourself in a thick sarong while dressed in a swimming costume only.

Sun Lotion[edit]

Applying sun lotions is better than nothing, but bear in mind that even the highest factor sun lotions only provide partial UV-protection (despite labels claiming "full UVA/B effectiveness), and none are suitable alone for prolonged (2 hours+) exposure to strong sunlight. Recent research indicates sun protection factors (SPFs) well above 30 provide little more protection than 30. New FDA standards are to soon be issued (ca Winter 2012) for labeling preparations to better describe what protection they actually offer.

Sun lotions should be thoroughly applied where clothing isn't possible or practicable, e.g., on the back of your hands, or on any exposed skin while you are in the water. The tops and bottoms of feet and back of knees can burn surprisingly fast. To work effectively, preparations need to be reapplied every 2 hours or less, again when in the water or where perspiring. Make sure whatever preparation you use is "fresh". Even the best formulas begin to lose effectiveness after more than a year.


Don't spend extended time outdoors during the hours around noon without extensive sun protection, especially if you're traveling in the tropics. Plan outdoor activities (with protection) such as swimming or boating if at all possible in the early morning or late afternoon.


When seriously burned, try to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Diving into open water to cool off won't help with the burn, and your skin will continue to get damage. Beware of infection if your skin is blistering. Take a cool shower (not cold) or a bath. Avoid scrubbing and shaving, use soft towels to dry yourself.

Get a commercially prepared sunburn cream or Aloe Vera to relieve the immediate symptoms.

Get as much rest as you can and drink lots of water to prevent dehydration. And stay out of the sun until your skin has recovered - which can often take a week or so.

Heat stroke[edit]

Sunstroke or heat prostration is a serious life-threatening condition which occurs when the body can no longer control its temperature; body heat rises and the victim becomes extremely ill.

High temperature is a major factor in this, of course. Humidity is also very important; when the humidity is high, water evaporates more slowly and the body's normal method of cooling itself by sweating is much less effective. Dehydration can contribute to the problem by making you sweat less; you should always drink lots of water when it is hot. Any physical exertion adds to the problem.

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