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Summer safety tips: Sunburn prevention and treatment for EMTs, paramedics

Stay safe under the sun with these 10 expert tips on preventing and treating sunburn

Sun protection products.png

As a first responder, you often spend long hours outdoors, exposing your skin to the sun’s harmful rays. Sunburn not only causes discomfort, but can also lead to serious skin damage over time. Sunburn also increases your risk of skin cancer, the most common form of cancer according to the American Academy of Dermatology. To help you stay protected and manage sunburn effectively, we consulted board-certified dermatologists for their top tips on sunburn prevention and treatment.

Tips to prevent sunburn while on-duty

In 2023, more than one-third (36%) of Americans sustained a sunburn.

“No matter your skin tone, you can get a sunburn if you are outside without proper protection,” Veena Vanchinathan, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist, said.

Prevention is the best way to avoid a painful, uncomfortable and distracting sunburn. Here are five tips to prevent sunburn.

1. Use broad-spectrum sunscreen

Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to all exposed skin before your shift. Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, or more frequently if you’re sweating or wiping your face.

“Application of sunscreen has been shown to reduce actinic keratosis and squamous cell carcinoma, two common types of skin cancer. It can also reduce photoaging, premature aging of skin from sun exposure, a process that can lead to cancer,” Dr. Stephanie Lareau, associate professor of emergency medicine, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, said.

Broad Spectrum Sunscreens
Select and apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or greater

2. Wear protective clothing

When working outdoors, opt for long-sleeved shirts, pants and wide-brimmed hats made from tightly woven fabrics. Look for clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) label for added protection. Of course, you need to select clothing and hats that meet department uniform guidelines.

“Wearing the right combinations of clothes, hats and sunglasses is also very effective for preventing sunburn,” Lareau said.

Sun protective clothing
When working and playing outdoors, cover as much skin as possible with sun protective shirts, pants, arm sleeves and hats

3. Seek shade

Whenever possible, take breaks in shaded areas. This is especially important during peak sun hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

4. Use sunglasses

Wear sunglasses that block 100% of UVA and UVB rays to protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them from sun damage.

Tactical Sunglasses
Protect your eyes from sun, particles and debris

5. Stay hydrated

Drink plenty of water throughout your shift. Hydrated skin is more resilient and less prone to sun damage.

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Tips on treating sunburn

Treat a sunburn in the same way you treat a thermal burn. A superficial or first-degree sunburn is less serious and will heal quicker than a partial-thickness or second-degree sunburn. Here are five sunburn treatment tips:

1. Cool the burn

If you get a sunburn while on duty, cool the affected area as soon as you can with cold compresses or a cool bath. Continue to apply a cool, damp cloth whenever you feel discomfort from the sunburn.

2. Apply a moisturizer

Apply a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer or aloe vera gel to soothe your sunburnt skin. Dermatologists also recommend applying calamine lotion; placing a cool, damp washcloth on the affected area; or taking a colloidal oatmeal bath.

Avoid products with alcohol, as they can dry out and irritate the skin further.

3. Stay hydrated

Drink extra fluids to help your body recover from the dehydration caused by sunburn. Adequate hydration supports the healing process.

4. Use over-the-counter pain relief

Take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or aspirin to reduce pain and inflammation. Follow the recommended dosage instructions.

5. Protect the burned area

As you heal, cover the sunburned skin with loose, soft clothing to prevent further irritation. Avoid sun exposure until the skin has fully healed.

If blisters form, protect them from irritation and popping by applying petroleum jelly. Allowing the blisters to heal can help prevent infection.

Sunburn prevention is skin cancer prevention

As a first responder, you already know you have a higher risk of cancer from occupational exposure and stress/exertion than the general population. Prolonged sun exposure significantly increases the risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

“While a sunburn is often treatable at home, symptoms occasionally require additional attention by a board-certified dermatologist,” Dr. Vanchinathan said. “Not only are we able to help make you more comfortable, it’s also a great time for your dermatologist to check you for signs of skin cancer.”

For first responders who spend extended periods outdoors, taking protective measures against sun exposure is crucial not only to prevent sunburn but also to reduce the long-term risk of skin cancer. Consistently using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, staying hydrated and seeking shade can make a substantial difference in safeguarding your health.

While good for protecting your eyesight, be aware that wearing sunglasses as a first responder could be seen as intimidation

EMS1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.

The EMS1 Lifestyle content series is written for the off-duty EMT and paramedic. Here you’ll find content on everything from the latest automotive and entertainment trends to tips and tricks for financial planning – all written from a first responder’s perspective, with an eye toward what makes you unique even when you’re not at the station.