The danger of sunburn in children - and how to prevent and treat it

·7-min read
Children have been treated for extreme sunburn over the weekend. (Posed by models, Getty Images)
Children have been treated for extreme sunburn over the weekend. (Posed by models, Getty Images)

Children have been treated in hospital for extreme sunburn as Britain experienced the hottest weekend of the year so far.

Temperatures soared to a scorching 31.6C at Heathrow and 30.2C in Cardiff, Sunday, making it the hottest day of the year, but the searing heat saw many fall victim to extremely high UVA and UVB levels.  

Three children with sunburn to what doctors described as “fairly large areas of their bodies” were admitted to the Welsh centre for burns and plastic surgery at Swansea’s Morriston hospital over the course of the weekend. 

“Our burns centre has been treating a lot of children with serious sunburn and staff fear a further surge in cases in the coming days,” the Swansea Bay University health board said in a statement. 

“Please remember to be sun safe. Just a few minutes applying a high-factor sunscreen could save you and your child a lot of pain and suffering.”

The warning comes as doctors call on parents to protect their children - and themselves - from the heat of the sun while the UK continues to experience record temperatures. 

Read more: Calls for sun-safety policy as children are 'getting sunburnt' at school

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is a painful red swelling of the skin that then peels over two to three days. 

Many people choose to burn, believing the sunburn will eventually turn brown - but that's often not the case.

"When skin tans, it’s because cells in your skin called melanocytes produce a brown pigment called melanin when exposed to sunlight, which is actually a good thing as it’s protecting your skin from sun damage," says Dr Ross Perry, GP and medical director of Cosmedics.

"Burning, however, is never good, it's red and sore and basically means that the top layer of your skin has been damaged beyond repair." 

This means there is actually no such thing as a healthy sun tan.  

"A tan is a response to DNA damage and caused by harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, and if you have one, you’ve sustained skin cell damage," Dr Perry continues. 

"Such damage is instrumental in the development of skin cancer, and it also accelerates skin ageing.”

How to protect your children and yourself from sunburn. (Getty Images)
How to protect your children and yourself from sunburn. (Getty Images)

Read more: 5 mistakes you've been making with your sunscreen

How do you protect against sunburn?

It’s always advisable to use a high SPF meaning less chance of burning and prolonged periods in the sun. 

"But no SPF, not even 100, offers 100% protection," Dr Perry explains. "It is important to remember that both UVA and UVB radiation can lead to skin cancer. 

Dr Perry says the overall difference in UVB protection between an SPF 100 and SPF 50 is really marginal and confusing for consumers as they seem to think it offers double the protection, which is in fact not true. 

Properly applied SPF 50 sunscreen blocks 98% of UVB rays, when used correctly, while sunscreen with SPF values in the range of 30 to 50 will offer adequate sunburn protection, even for people with pale skin and this should still be applied frequently. 

"I generally advise, no matter the skin type, to use an SPF of 30 which allows about 3% of UVB rays to hit your skin. An SPF of 50 allows about 2% of those rays through, so there's very little difference." 

Watch: Experts warn of danger to eyes from invisible UV rays. 

As well as knowing the level of SPF to apply, it is also important to know how often to reapply it. 

"You should reapply suncream every two hours, especially if swimming or spending prolonged periods of time outside," explains Dr Perry.  

"I would also advise wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and loose cotton clothing whilst also keeping out of the sun as much as possible," he adds.  

The key is also remembering to apply sunscreen at least 20 mins prior to going outside, to allow it to fully absorb.  

And don't forget to apply to those easy-to-miss areas such as the hair line, soles of the feet and ears which are often forgotten.

Dr Perry also recommends children wear UVA/UVB sun protection clothing, especially if in the pool, as the sunlight can penetrate through water. 

"Most are cost effective and work very well and avoid the hassle of having to apply loads of cream which is often an arduous but a necessary chore with children," he adds. 

Read more: Forgetting to apply SPF to eyelids could put us at risk

What to do if you're sunburnt

If you’re unfortunate enough to get sunburnt, Dr Perry recommends putting a cold, damp towel on your sore skin, use a moisturiser to help soothe the area, drink plenty of water and if it really hurts, take a couple of painkillers. 

"Keep out of the sun altogether for a few days or if you really must go out, cover up with loose cotton clothing, wide brimmed hat, sunglasses and high SPF," he adds. 

Aloe vera is a traditional herbal remedy believed to reduce sunburn symptoms. 

"There is no scientific evidence in support of its use for sunburn, but anecdotal evidence is that it is soothing and safe and can feel cooling," Dr Perry explains. 

"However, be aware that some of the gels can be quite drying (especially if they contain alcohol). What sunburned skin needs more than anything is intensive moisture. 

"Anything from aqueous cream to body butter would do the job," he continues. "A moisturising after-sun containing aloe vera is a good choice, as it combines the soothing benefits of aloe vera with hydration. Above all, the key is to apply liberally and frequently.”

Sunburn is skin damage. (Getty Images)
Sunburn is skin damage. (Getty Images)

Other tips for dealing with sunburn

Moisturisers containing vitamin C and E work well on sunburnt skin as they have antioxidants which help the skin to heal, minimising the amount of flaking that will ensue.

"Refrigerating the cream first will make it feel even better on your sunburned skin," Dr Perry adds. 

Ibuprofen/paracetamol can also relieve sunburn swelling and pain all over your body. Taking antihistamines will also help.

A cool shower or a damp cool towel can help with sunburnt skin but rather than rub your skin with a towel Dr Perry says it is best to pat the skin or let it air dry.

Witch hazel can also be another natural remedy for sunburn as it contains chemicals called tannins, which help towards skin repair and fight against bacteria, meaning it can aid skin that's painful and burnt. 

"You can apply straight witch hazel direct to the skin," Dr Perry says. "Another natural remedy is baking soda which can be used to help with sunburn, too. When mixed with water and applied, baking soda's alkaline properties can really soothe skin that's in pain."

While the symptoms of sunburn should improve in a few days, if the area remains red, tender or appears wet and infected you should consult your doctor or pharmacist for more advice.

Read more: Your sun protection guide: SPF, UVB and UVA explained

The NHS has some further advice about the things you should and shouldn’t do when treating sunburn.

Do

  • get out of the sun as soon as possible

  • apply aftersun cream or spray, like aloe vera

  • drink plenty of water to cool down and prevent dehydration.

  • cover sunburnt skin from direct sunlight until skin has fully healed

Don't

  • do not put ice or ice packs on sunburnt skin

  • do not scratch or try to remove peeling skin

Watch: Cancer research UK study reveals suncream alone is not enough. 

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