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6 warning signs you’re getting a sunburn


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Photo: Stocksy/Katarina Radovic

Nothing can ruin a perfect summer day faster than someone saying, “Hey, you’re getting a little red.”

And it doesn’t even take that much fun in the sun for a burn to start forming. “Within a few minutes, without proper protection, your skin sets off a cascade of defense mechanisms, including an inflammatory response accompanied by dilated capillaries in order to increase blood flow to the damaged area,” says Shereene Idris, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at the Dermatology Department of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. In other words: ouch.

So what to look for—other than nasty blistering—when you’re getting some vitamin D? There are six key signs that your skin’s been overexposed. Committing them to memory—and investing in an awesome natural sunscreen—might just be the best way to guarantee you don’t spend a single one of your 99 days of summer indoors, covered in aloe vera.

Scroll down to see the top 6 sunburn signs and symptoms, according to skin experts.

Graphics: Abby Maker for Well+Good

This is the very first warning sign that your skin could be burning—and it means you need to run for shady cover ASAP. “Often times, people also experience itchiness at the site of the burn due to the inflammatory cytokines being released,” says Dr. Idriss. Fight the impulse to scratch by pulling out all of the childhood chickenpox tricks—like wearing a pair of oven mitts to bed. (And hey, you might as well treat your cuticles to a deep-condition by massaging on some coconut oil while you’re at it.)

There’s nothing worse than coming inside from a day spent helping your garden grow, only to realize that your skin’s the exact same shade as your cherry tomatoes. That flushing of your dermis is the first visible sign of a sunburn. It happens when your “superficial blood vessels (AKA capillaries) begin dilating to increase blood flow,” says Dr. Idriss. For most people, this happens within 10 minutes of overexposure—yup, it’s that quick.

“Skin often emanates warmth due to overheating,” says Julie Karen, MD, a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in skin cancer. Sunburns feel hot to the touch and can send feverish flashes through your entire body—which is really the last thing anyone needs when they’re trying to stay chill on a humid summer day.

This overheating can last for up to three days, but the best thing you can do to eliminate the redness is keeping your skin cool. A cold milk compress can help ease the burning sensation. According to Dr. Idriss, the dairy drink’s frosty temperature, pH level, and proteins cause a heat-drawing effect, which can lessen redness.

Remember when you were little and your mom used to press your arm to see if it turned white? Probably not one of your fondest childhood memories, but it served a practical purpose: The skin beneath a real-deal sunburn goes white when you touch it because, by pushing down on it, you’re temporarily blocking the blood flow to the area (which, in turn, reduces the redness on the surface). Now if only the symptoms of a sunburn could disappear as magically….

The initial feeling of intense heat associated with a sunburn is usually followed by a slight tightening of your skin as it swells from the increased blood flow to the affected area. (Fun, right?) At this stage, says Dr. Idriss, it’s really about trying to relieve your symptoms and waiting things out.

Avoid heat (especially hot showers) as much as possible, and pop an oral anti-inflammatory—Dr. Idriss recommends ibuprofen—to help with the swelling. You should also stick to loose-fitting clothing to let your skin breathe, which means it’s the perfect time to whip out the flowy caftan you bought on vacation.

When a sunburn happens, your body starts to feel dehydrated, which can make your skin appear visibly dry, says Dr. Karen. The best way to treat the thirst trap is to let your body air-out post-shower. Dr. Idriss also suggests applying soy- or aloe-based creams on your damp dermis to help heal the wounds and seal in moisture—and to avoid any products with alcohol (frosty poolside margaritas included).

Say no to sunburns: Here’s how to get a beachy glow sans sun. And check out these natural fixes for other summer beauty bummers like frizzy hair and dry skin.

This story was originally published on June 13, 2017; it was updated on July 19, 2018. 

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