• Health & Fitness

Sunburnt swimmers: Protecting yourself out in the water

How much do you really know about sunburn? Learn what sunburn is, how UV rays affects our skin, how to treat sunburn and how to prevent it.

Australia is home to some of the harshest summers in the world and while it’s great for some things, like spending your weekends at the beach and enjoying the beautiful oceans our coastline has to offer, it also means most of us experience our fair share of sunburn.

The chances are, even if you’re the most diligent in protecting yourself from the sun, you’ve been burnt by accident.

Sunburn not only hurts and causes discomfort but also affects our skin long after the sunburn fades, increasing our chances of basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Did you know? A Cancer Council study found that at least 2.7 million Australians get sunburnt each weekend during the Australian summer months.

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is the skin’s inflammatory reaction when it has been exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation. It is essentially a radiation burn to the skin’s outermost layers.

Melanin is at the heart of all sunburns. Melanin is a pigment in our epidermis (top layer of skin) that gives our skin its colour and helps to defend it against the sun’s rays. It works by darkening our unprotected sun-exposed skin.

The amount of melanin in everyone’s body is determined by genetics, which is why some people become sunburnt easily, while others become tanned. For those with less melanin, unprotected sun exposure can cause the skin cells to become red, swollen and painful, which is sunburn.

How does UV radiation cause sunburn?

The sun not only gives off heat and light but also invisible UV radiation.

This UV radiation can pass through a light cloud and become scattered in the air, reflecting on surfaces such as buildings, concrete, sand, and even water. This is why people can often get burnt when it is overcast or when on the water.

There are three types of UV radiation; UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA and UVB radiation are the primary cause of sunburn.

UVA is the most common type of UV rays from the sun and can penetrate the skin down to the middle layer where new skin cells are generated. Too many UVA rays can cause sunburn, dryness, blotchiness, and wrinkling of the skin.

UVB is a shorter wavelength compared to UVA and only penetrates the top layer of the skin. UVB is more dangerous than UVA as it causes tanning, burning, ageing and skin damage which affects the surface skin layer.

When UVB penetrates the skin, the skin responds by releasing chemicals to dilate blood vessels which causes inflammation and fluid leakage, known as sunburn.

UVC rays are stopped by the ozone layer, meaning the only exposure we can get from UVC rays is from artificial sources such as welding torches and lasers.

How to treat sunburn

As hard as we try to not get sunburnt, sometimes it’s inevitable if we’re living the Aussie beach life.

While there is no cure for sunburn, there are plenty of ways to help the body heal sunburn.

If you get sunburnt, try these treatment options:

  • Drink plenty of water because sunburn can lead to dehydration
  • Apply a cool compress to the affected area
  • Apply moisturiser, aloe vera lotion or calamine lotion to help soothe the sunburn
  • Take over-the-counter pain relief medication to reduce discomfort and inflammation
  • If your sunburn blisters, do not pop blisters. Cover the affected area with a wound dressing to reduce the risk of infection
  • If your sunburn starts to peel, do not peel the skin further yourself, let it peel off naturally. This is your body’s way of trying to rid itself of the damaged cells.

How to prevent sunburn

Sunburn is easy to prevent by using a combination of sun protection measures.

Monitoring the UV levels is the easiest way to determine what sun protection measures you should use on any given day. The easiest way to monitor the UV level is through the weather app on your phone. You can also download the SunSmart app or the Bureau Meteorology app.

Sun Smart’s UV Index

When the UV level is higher than two, sun protection measures are recommended.

The best way to prevent sunburn is to follow the five rules of ‘S’:

Slip: On protective clothing, make sure it covers as much skin as possible
Slap: On SPF 30 or high broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen 20 minutes before going outdoors and ensure you reapply every two hours.
Slap: On a broad-brimmed hat that protects not only your face but also, your head, neck and ears.
Seek: Shade or a covered area.
Slide: On sunglasses. Make sure they meet the Australian Standard AS/NZS 1067.

Preventing sunburn when swimming

Swimming in uncovered water, whether that be the open water or an uncovered outdoor pool, brings its own challenges in staying SunSmart.

By nature, as swimmers, we’re unlikely to want to wear full protective clothing as it would increase drag and make us hot, however, we can still make smart decisions to protect ourselves.

  1. Swim early in the morning or later in the evening when the sun is low
  2. Wear 2-4-hour water-resistant sunscreen, and apply 10-15 minutes before your swim
  3. Use a thick zinc-based sunscreen on your face, neck and shoulders
  4. Have a friend apply the sunscreen to your back to ensure full coverage
  5. Wear a tight-fitting rash shirt that covers your back and shoulders (short sleeve is ok)
  6. Wetsuits, including wetsuit tops, will provide maximum coverage but could also be hot to swim in
  7. Wear a swim cap and ensure it covers your ears
  8. When stopping/resting in the water, face away from the sun
  9. If swimming during the middle of the day, keep your swims short
  10. Minimise the time standing around on the beach before and after your swim

Do you have a sun smart tip for swimmers? Comment below

  • Written by Ocean Swims on 17 January 2023
  • (Updated on 3 August 2023)

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