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Is it time to see the dermatologist about your sunburn?

Talking to your dermatologist about a sunburn can be embarrassing. Patients are often concerned about judgment from their doctor. While your dermatologist would prefer to see everyone practicing good, preventative suncare, they understand that mistakes happen, and they are here to help. Your dermatologist is ultimately concerned about your wellness and wants to help you before a situation becomes dangerous.

Sunburns can happen quickly, and even when you think you're protected.

The sun is stronger than most people realize.

On bright summer days, sunburns can happen before you know it. When the UV index is 10 or higher, fair, unprotected skin can burn in just 10 minutes! You may have developed skin damage before you realize it. How? Sunburns are not always immediately visible or painful. The skin may turn red in as little as 30 minutes, but most burns take around three or more hours to show up after the damage is done. Breezy days can also mask the sting of a sunburn, making it easy to miss the signs until the situation becomes severe.

Incorrect sunscreen use leads to unexpected burns.

Sunscreen application seems simple - slather on, head outdoors. However, there are five common user errors when it comes to sunscreen misuse.

  1. Didn't use enough product. If your skin is not entirely covered by sunscreen, it is not protected. An adult requires one ounce of sunscreen - enough to fill a shot glass - per application.
  2. Didn't wait before heading outside. Chemical sunscreens require a few minutes to reach full efficacy. After your first application of the day, you need to wait 15 to 20 minutes before heading outside. Putting on sunscreen once you get to the park or the beach leaves you vulnerable to burns.
  3. Didn't check the expiration date. Sunscreen can expire. Before using any product, check for a use-by date for maximum efficacy.
  4. Didn't reapply. You may have prepared for a day of outdoor fun by slathering on SPF 30+ before heading outdoors - but then forgot to reapply two hours later (or 80 minutes later after enjoying activities in the water). As the afternoon passes, the protective power of even SPF 100 is totally gone, and you are left exposed to harmful UVA and UVB rays.
  5. Didn't use other forms of protection. Sunscreen is an essential first line of defense against the sun, but it should never be your only sun safety strategy. Physical barriers allow for more complete protection. Wear UPF protectant clothing, put on a hat and sunglasses, set up an umbrella, or simply avoid the sun when it's most dangerous - between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm.

So, when should I get help from a dermatologist about my sunburn?

There are a few warning signs that your sunburn needs medical attention:

  • When blisters form and the burn covers a large portion of your body

  • When you've developed an infection alongside your burn (signs include swelling, pus, or red streaks coming from a blister)

  • When the sunburn doesn't respond to home remedies like aloe.

You should never feel uneasy when talking to your doctor about any condition. However, we understand that these conversations can be uncomfortable. That's why store-and-forward platforms like DermatologistOnCall can be so beneficial. With no anxiety-inducing, face-to-face encounter, you can discretely communicate your concerns.

Please note: Not every severe case is appropriate for the DermatologistOnCall platform. If you're experiencing high fever, headache, dehydration, confusion, nausea, or chills in addition to your sunburn, seek emergency care immediately. While our dermatologists respond to cases quickly, our average 15-hour response time is not rapid enough for emergencies like potential sun poisoning or heat stroke.