ARTICLE: Injuries - Sunburn

Now, when most of us are talking about running injuries, sunburn probably isn't exactly the first that springs to mind (I'd wager lost toes, I mean toe-nails!, is higher on the list).

When the weather finally blesses us with a radiant sunny day like Saturday, being a mountain runner can easily subject you this injury, however, and alas, so it happened to me on our "epic" 39km trek through the Wicklows...

Sunburn is any kind of burn to living tissue caused by over-exposure to ultra-violet light (even trees can be "killed" by sunburn, believe it or not!).

All humans are equipped with a substance called melanin in the skin that acts as a shield against these rays (most of these rays are actually deflected away by the Earth's magnetic field and the ozone layer, without this we'd all combust!). Melanin actually protects against a wide range of cell-damage, and is the substance that forms part of the colour of your eyes and the freckles on your skin (a freckle is a melanin concentration).

Ethnicities of humans that live in colder, less sunny climate, have developed a lower level of melanin in the skin than their darker skinned neighbours closer to the equator. This allows those of us with light skin to absorb Vitamin D from the sun much more easily. The downside: We cannot absorb as large amounts of UV and are more prone to sunburn, and, in a few cases, to its lethal consequences - skin cancer.

How to Prevent
We all know how to prevent sunburn these days. First and foremost don't overdo the initial exposure, build up slowly (in other words, don't do the first 6 hours on the mountains in a sleeveless when that's the first light your shoulders are going to see that year!).

Second we must use sunscreen, most of us stronger than 15, but this can wary even on the parts of your body. My "gypsy genes" have provided me with some protection, not as strong as that carried by my mother and my grandfather, but still stronger than the average Caucasian. Unfortunately, this protection extends only to the areas that I have regularly exposed to the sun throughout my lifetime: arms, legs, face, and neck.

As runners we also need to take care to use a sunscreen that will not dissolve in water, as we will sweat a good deal more than average. This is compounded when running (as we did) during High Noon, especially the time from 12:00-15:00 demands great care, as the Sun's rays will be at their most potent.

How to Treat
First and foremost, start doing colder showers, any degree of warmth will not only hurt, but make matters worse. Do not expose the skin to frozen bags or similar, however!

Second you need to re-hydrate the skin. When the damage is significant (I will spare readers the pictures, but let's just say a smaller part of shoulder is pretty unrecognisable!), you must treat it like any other true burn.

Aloe Vera
After-sun lotions are useful, as is any standard moisturiser, but a much more effective natural remedy exists, and has been known for ages: Aloe-Vera, the oil of the Aloe-Vera Barbadensis plant.

This oil is believed to have numerous health benefits, but few have been proven beyond doubt. One unquestionable benefit is that it soothes burns and re-establishes moisture balance in damaged skin cells, so it should be your number one choice for treatment of sunburns.
Today you can buy specialised sun lotions and after suns based on Aloe Vera, which is a great bonus, as it not only gives you all the protective effects of the plant but steers you clear of having to rub yourself in chemical solutions.
Any substance that promotes cell-repair will aid the healing of a sunburn (such as boiled tomatoes, essential amino acids from protein, etc.), but zink is the main component. The amount you need for this type of injury will exceed the levels you can normally gain from a healthy varied diet.
Zinc is involved in many regenerative processes in the body and zinc oxide is known to help the absorption of UV light. I am still researching precisely how ingestion of zinc can alleviate burns, but I will take the sellers word on it, as I had an old supplement lying around anyway I wasn't using!
Lavender is most often associated with purple bathrobes and foaming hot tubs, and if you look it up on the internet you'll hear things like "brings serenity, well-being, and connectivity to the universe" (that's a heavy promise!).
It's actually a plant of light violet colour and the oil has powerful anti-septic and anti-bacterial properties. When used on burns and insect stings it's known to be particularly calming.
A lady in the health store recommended to me that I mixeda 4 drops of lavender oil (which comes cheap) with an Aloe-Vera after-sun to treat the burns, and I can only attest to the results. It's still not pretty, but it feels a whole lot better.
When the upper skin layers have been damaged beyond repair as in this case, I'd recommend fairly regular treatment. I've been using this solution for a day now, twice today already, and the skin still dries back up fairly quickly.