We’ve all heard the mantra about using sunscreen and avoiding sun exposure. But why is this such a big deal? Sunburn is a radiation burn on the skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) rays. It causes redness and inflammation and, if intense enough, blisters and eventually peeling skin. Severe sunburns may even bring on flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, nausea and so on. The long-term effects of sun over-exposure are scarier: the UV rays can alter a person’s DNA and lead to premature aging, and even cancers. Melanoma, a deadly skin cancer, is directly linked to excessive sun exposure.
In Chinese medicine theory, one of the so-called “pernicious evils” is summer heat. It can invade the human body very quickly and do severe damage not just to the surface of the skin, but to the body’s qi. It may consume the body’s fluids and thus deplete yin. It can also invade the pericardium and heart and cause illness and delirium. Sunstroke is a good example of this phenomenon: a person exposed to blazing sun might eventually feel nauseated, dizzy and possibly faint. The Chinese Medicine diagnosis of a sunburn is a local invasion of this heat- specifically damp-heat- trapped in the surface of the skin. Good remedies for a bad sunburn are aloe vera gel applied multiple times per day, along with ample water intake. Moisturizing the skin throughout its recovery is imperative. Those with severe sunburns should eat foods that are cooling, such as watermelon, cucumbers, mint, coconut water, and green salads, to name a few. Avoiding foods that increase heat such as sugary snacks and beverages, alcohol, caffeine, excessive meat, spicy or greasy foods may be useful. Acupuncture points that clear heat and damp may speed recovery.
The type of skin a person has, the intensity of the sun and length of time exposed all affect the likelihood of a burn. Of course, the best prevention for sunburn is to avoid sun exposure altogether! Covering the skin and using broad spectrum spf (sun protection factor) sunscreen with a level of 30-50 are recommended, with reapplication every 2 hours. The chemicals in these products either create a barrier on the skin or reflect the UV rays, blocking their absorption. Broad spectrum sunscreens affect both UVA and UVB rays. More recently, the spf chemicals have come under scrutiny as they may be linked to other side effects (allergic reactions, tissue damage and hormone imbalances) and environmental issues. According to Consumer Reports, products containing oxybenzone are questionable, as this ingredient has been found to be absorbed by the skin and may damage coral reefs. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are both considered safe ingredients, but they do not perform as well as other sunscreens. So, look at your sunscreen products, their ingredients (and their expiration dates) before applying and use them as directed.