Why am I sun burned so badly?
May 24, 2007 11:23 PM   Subscribe

I'm 50% Native American, and 50% Sicilian. Why am I sun burned so badly?

I was out in the sun earlier today, used SPF 15 sunblock, and re-applied every 30 - 45 minutes. I was outside for less than 3 hours. I have never been severely sun burned in my life, and am 21 years old.

Spending nearly all of my days indoors (as a computer programmer), I thought a little natural light would be healthy. I haven't been out in the sun for an extended period of time for over a year (which gave me some nice dark color!).

I have no freckles, dark brown hair, and green eyes. I have a decent amount of curly, dark brown body hair. I typically get wonderful, healthy-looking tans, as if I've been restored to my natural skin color.

Today, I turned into a lobster. My lips are so dark I am considering seeking medical attention if they show no signs of improvement in the morning.

Oddly enough, my burned skin (practically my whole frontal-body) is not in much pain at all. I've been applying vinegar and aloe-vera every hour or so. I hope to purchase some cocoa butter tomorrow morning.

Why all of a sudden have I become so sensitive to the sun? Lack of protein in my recent diet maybe? If you have any suggestion for me, please shell them out :)

Also, I know the dangers of UV rays to my body. Please be constructive, as I am already burned, and telling me of my stupidity will do nothing more than hurt my character.
posted by Jimmie to Health & Fitness (26 answers total)
Best answer: It hasn't got anything to do with your diet.

A tan protects you against the sun. That's what it's for, actually. If it's been a year since you've spent significant time in the sun, your tan will have faded as your body converted it to Vitamin D. That's the other thing it's for.

So when you went out today, your skin was as vulnerable as mine is all the time (I'm a redhead) and you got toasted. After your skin peels, you'll build up a tan (which is something that will never happen to me as long as I live) and next time you'll be able to tolerate more time without looking like a boiled lobster.

The first two or three times you go out in the spring each year, you should limit your exposure until you can see a tan developing. Slow and steady is the way to go. (Says the guy who can't speak from personal experience.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:34 PM on May 24, 2007

What Steve says sounds reasonable, you just lost all your color and spent way to much time outside in the sun for your first time back. As a long time burner, also a redhead, I've never had my lips become really dark so I can't help you with that one. Re-tan yourself by maybe laying outside for 15-20minutes at a time on a chair, hammock or whatever suits you. If you've got time during your day at work to spend a little outside on your break or maybe lunch? But most of my friends that do tan do try to limit there exposure for a day or 2. Sadly the closest I'll ever get to a tan is all my freckles blending together, but good luck with your burn and the lip thing (doctors visit may not be a bad idea but wait another 2 days unless you think they're that bad)
posted by Sgt.Grumbless at 11:55 PM on May 24, 2007

What you need to do in future is get is a "base tan". The base tan is the little pre-tan most of us must get before extended sun exposure to combat burning.

I usually tan just fine but the same thing happens to me if I spend too much time indoors and get really pale. About every three to five years I forget this and head out for a day in the sun in late spring and fry myself silly. I once spent two years in England then went to Mexico for a week- ouch!

btw, I find that Vitamin E + aloe is the best cure, I get the capsules and use the liquid inside. Cocoa butter is kind of sticky.
posted by fshgrl at 12:04 AM on May 25, 2007

Is there any itchiness or blistering? You may want to check with a dermatologist as to whether you have actinic prurigo, a sun allergy. It's much more common in Native American people than the rest of the population.
posted by teg at 12:22 AM on May 25, 2007

have you started taking any new medications? some of them can cause increased photosensitivity. if this is a new sun sensitivity, i'd contact a dr.
posted by wayward vagabond at 1:20 AM on May 25, 2007

Was it windy where you were outside? If so you may have wind burn which would look and feel just like sunburn.
posted by biffa at 1:44 AM on May 25, 2007

This doesn't really answer your question, but -- nuts to the cocoa butter, I'd say, if the pain shows up eventually. Still might; I burnt the other week, and getting to full-on ooh ooh ow took a while. Find some Solarcaine.
posted by kmennie at 1:58 AM on May 25, 2007

Response by poster: Hi guys. First, thanks for all the comments. Here's some more info:

Base tan + gradual exposure: Thanks for the info. I'll remember that next year.

No itchiness or blistering - yet. Its been about 10 hours so far. I have some cousins who are 'allergic to the sun', I can only assume they have actinic prurigo. I don't think I have this condition however, because I've had tons of exposure to the sun in my life.

I am taking no new medications, and have no real allergies.

It was sort of windy, but my girlfriend (a light tan asian) was with me and she doesn't have any burns at all. I would guess that wind burn isn't selective of skin color, but I could be wrong.

Thanks again for all the advice. I'm putting on every vitamin that's been mentioned :)

I must say, Tylenol works wonders to get rid of the pain, which increased as I attempted to sleep in bed.
posted by Jimmie at 2:58 AM on May 25, 2007

I'm very blonde and burn easily, and when I put on suntan lotion I can see it for about five minutes until it melts against my skin or is absorbed or whatever. I probably use three times as much as the people around me. I think the people who are rubbing it in so it's invisible don't put enough on. That might possibly have been one factor.

Solarcaine is awesome. I second that recommendation.
posted by joannemerriam at 3:17 AM on May 25, 2007

sun poisoning
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:35 AM on May 25, 2007

I haven't been out in the sun for an extended period of time for over a year

That's most likely the reason. I tan well and even I would burn if I spent 3 hours in the sun after not having been out in it for over a year.

Or maybe you used shitty sunscreen. How old was the bottle you used? If it had been sitting in your cabinet since the last time you were in the sun over a year ago, maybe it had lost some of its protective strength.
posted by boomchicka at 4:23 AM on May 25, 2007

Well- you say you are sicilian but you have green eyes. I think this could be the Celtic-Nordic that married into the local population.
This MAY have to do with the sun burning issue you are having.
But it seems like ineffective/older sunscreen might have been a culprit, too.
posted by beccaj at 4:50 AM on May 25, 2007

According to this study, your diet can help protect you from a sunburn.

I'm guessing in this case everyone else is right, though, and you just spend too much time in the sun after a long period of no exposure.
posted by thejanna at 6:02 AM on May 25, 2007

I was coming in here to mention possible no-good sunscreen, but boomchicka beat me too it. Once, being dumb, I used a bottle of body lotion that was supposed to be SPF15 but wasn't specifically for use as a sunscreen. I was lobsterish after that, too.
posted by hazyjane at 6:07 AM on May 25, 2007

Not to make light of your condition, but it would be funny if you returned the sunscreen to the store in your current state. "Reason for return?" "Uh, have you looked at me?"
posted by boomchicka at 6:10 AM on May 25, 2007

"Tylenol works wonders to get rid of the pain"

But Tylenol is not an anti-inflammatory. Aspirin, real aspirin, really works better on burns, including sunburn. Works best if you take it right away, as soon as you know you are burned.
posted by anitar at 6:17 AM on May 25, 2007

Response by poster: Hi again everyone,

Woke up in the middle of the night (Hawaii time). The redness on my face is slowly turning brown. I think the aloe vera is helping quite a bit.

The sunscreen I used is the same brand and type I have used all my life. The bottle is newly purchased, about 3 weeks old.

I really just think I've overexposed myself too quickly this summer. Thanks for all the insight. I'll be getting some aspirin today!
posted by Jimmie at 7:45 AM on May 25, 2007

You're in Hawaii!? That changes everything.

Tropical sun in Hawaii is not like the sun in the continental United States. It's shockingly strong, especially if you're visiting from a high latitude spot like, um, Massachusetts.

At a shop on Kauai a few months ago, a clerk wouldn't sell my (admittedly pale) friend SPF 15 sunscreen, because it would have been like no sunscreen at all for him. He settled on SPF 45.

Yes, aspirin and (this may be nonsense, but I always do it) a multivitamin after I get too much sun.
posted by bisesi at 8:03 AM on May 25, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah I guess I under-estimated the tropical sun. I spend a lot of time in Hawaii (about 20% of the year), and after a week of hanging around, thought I was ready to face direct contact.

In retrospect, it was a poor decision on my part :(
posted by Jimmie at 8:28 AM on May 25, 2007

Oh dude you're in Hawaii? You should have said that in the first place. THAT's why you got so burned. I had checked your user page and it said you were in MA. Hawaii sun is very different from Massachssets sun. 45 sunblock would have been a better bet, tapering to 30, then 15, etc.
posted by boomchicka at 8:35 AM on May 25, 2007

A tepid (not cold) bath with half a box of baking soda mixed in makes my very sensitive skin feel wonderful after too much heat or sun exposure.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:36 AM on May 25, 2007

It should be noted, by the way, that while a tan will protect your skin from the blistery, hurty effects of sunburn, it will not protect your skin from the cancer-causing effects of the sun. Darkening of the skin in the sun, whether burn or tan, is a sign of damage that may lead to skin cancers later in life. In terms of skin cancer, there is no such thing as a safe tan. So even if you're a person who tends to tan rather than burn, doctors recommend that you use sunscreen to protect your skin and that you view darkening of your skin as a sign of potential damage.
posted by decathecting at 8:54 AM on May 25, 2007

are you on antibiotics? I got a hideous sun burn from being in a car for 2 hours that had a sunroof, and I finally deduced it was because of the antibiotics I was on, as I already had a good base tan and don't typically burn easily at all.
posted by Soulbee at 9:00 AM on May 25, 2007

ScDB is basically right about why you were burned. He's wrong about what happens when your tan fades.

Melanin is the skin pigment that makes tan people tan & people various shades of brown. It's produced in the skin at levels that depend on a combination of genetics and sun exposure. It's constantly shed in the dead skin cells which contain it.

Melanin is not used to make Vitamin D. In fact, dark skinned people in high latitudes often have Vitamin D deficiencies because their dark skin blocks too much of the UV they do get, preventing the production of sufficient quantities of Vitamin D from the precursors in their dit.
posted by Good Brain at 10:10 AM on May 25, 2007

Two anecdotes:

1) I put some Aloe on the blistering shoulders of my daughter's friend. Her mother called later and asked what I did to make the blisters go away. Amazing make-burns-better stuff.

2) On an outdoor adventure in Mexico during High School, the black kids got tanned as well. One reported that his mother almost called the cops when he got home because she didn't recognize him.
posted by trinity8-director at 12:29 PM on May 25, 2007

I remember a Native American friend working way up the Alaska Highway begging me for some sunscreen one summer. He had asked other people to bring some from town, but they didn't take him seriously because he was already very brown. He certainly felt he was getting sunburned.
posted by Idcoytco at 4:12 AM on May 26, 2007

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