- As the lips are sensitive, they are susceptible to sunburns and require consistent protection from the sun’s damaging rays.
- Long-term unprotected sun exposure can lead to a number of symptoms, including inflammation, dryness and scabbing.
- Treatment for sunburned lips varies depending on the intensity, but it most often consists of home remedies.
Overexposure to the ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet A (UVA) rays in sunlight can have extremely damaging short-term and long-term effects on the skin, depending on the severity of the sunburn. In most cases of sunburned lips, these effects include inflammation, dryness, scabbing, and blistering. Though SPF is available in sunscreens, moisturizers, and makeup, protecting the lips from sunburns is often overlooked when it comes to suncare.
Can You Get Sunburned on Your Lips?
Yes, UV rays absorbed by the skin, including the lips, lead to cell death after exceeding a certain threshold. A thin layer of skin cells forms the lips, making them fragile and more easily penetrated by UV rays, in comparison to the rest of the body. Because of its position, the lower lip receives more sun exposure than the upper lip, and is therefore at a higher risk of sunburn.
The lips also contain much lower amounts of melanin, a pigment that protects the skin from UV rays, than the rest of the body. Therefore, they have less protection against UVA and UVB rays.
Symptoms of Sunburned Lips
Because UV rays are carcinogenic, prolonged and unprotected exposure of the lips to sunlight can lead to various effects. Mild effects are usually visible within 5 hours, whereas increasingly severe symptoms may appear up to a day after exposure.
In most cases, key symptoms of sunburned lips include inflammation, mild swelling, dryness, and peeling, which occur due to the body’s immediate inflammatory response to damaging carcinogens like UV rays.
Can sunburn cause swollen lips?
Yes, because the major response to all sunburns is inflammation, which causes redness, soreness, dryness, swelling, and heat in the damaged area. In most cases, these effects subside within a few days, since lip sunburns are often mild.
On the other hand, intense sunburns lead to uncomfortable, painful, and sometimes itchy blisters filled with pus, in addition to increased swelling.
Blisters caused by sunburn vs. cold sores
Blisters due to sunburns could be easily confused with oral herpes (cold sores), but their root causes are different. While blisters are primarily a result of extended sun damage, cold sores develop due to a fever, a cold, or stress.
In terms of appearance, sunburn blisters are commonly small, clustered, and white, whereas cold sores are larger lesions to the lip and surrounding areas.
How to Treat Sunburned Lips
Typically, lips that are mildly sunburned are easily treatable at home without medical intervention. For more intensely sun-damaged lips, anti-inflammatory medications and painkillers help.
Aloin, the active ingredient in aloe vera, is an anti-inflammatory compound. Applying chilled aloe vera gel to sunburned skin may speed up the healing process, in addition to cooling the area, reducing swelling, hydrating and soothing discomfort.
During the healing process, the sunburned area will be dry and will peel. It’s important to apply products that contain ingredients with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Store-bought pure aloe vera gel will reduce the discomfort of peeling, in addition to providing aloe vera’s benefits.
Cold compresses can reduce the burning sensation while cooling the damaged tissue. This counteracts the symptoms of inflammation and decreases swelling and redness. Wrap an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables with a towel and apply intermittently to the lips for several minutes.
Medications and topical creams
Over the counter medications can treat the symptoms of sunburned lips and speed up recovery, because they can provide pain relief and anti-inflammatory effects. Choose acetaminophen for pain relief, and Aspirin and ibuprofen for pain relief and anti-inflammatory properties. Alternatively, hydrocortisone cream decreases itchiness and swelling without blocking sweat glands.
After a sunburn, make sure to stay hydrated and avoid diuretic fluids, including alcoholic and caffeinated drinks, to allow the replenishment of the skin’s natural moisture. Caffeine and alcohol promote diuresis and can lead to excessive loss of water from the body, which interferes with wound healing.
Home Remedies for Sunburned Lips
Homemade cold compresses can be made from:
- Chilled green tea bags and cucumbers, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and can cool the area.
- Ice cubes wrapped in a thin cloth or any other wrapped refrigerated item, which can physically cool the damaged area, and reduce redness and pain from inflammation.
Topical home remedies include:
- Applying coconut oil to reduce dryness and the discomfort of peeling.
- Applying pure aloe vera gel.
- Making a simple oatmeal paste with water, which soothes itchy, dry lips.
How to Prevent Lips From Getting Sunburned
- Consistently and generously apply a lip balm with SPF and to reduce exposure to sunlight between 10 AM and 2 PM. This will ensure protection from UV rays at all times, especially when they are most dangerous.
- Maintain this habit on cloudy days and during winter, since UV rays are invisible to the naked eye and can penetrate through clouds.
- Keep in mind that the intensity of UV rays increases with attitude, meaning that applying SPF during flights is necessary.
How Long Do Sunburned Lips Take to Heal?
Mildly sunburned lips take less than a week to heal. After a sunburn, damaged lips go through stages of inflammation:
The intensity and duration of inflammation depends on the severity of the sunburn. For most sunburned lips, inflammation is mild and diminishes quickly and is followed by dryness and peeling. If left untreated, mild sunburns will usually heal within less than a week. However, the dryness, dehydration, and shredding of the damaged skin will be more uncomfortable and painful than they would be if simple remedies were used, since they can ease the pain of recovery and reduce recovery time to 4 days.
On the other hand, more severe sunburns require longer to heal, as the blisters drain their accumulated fluid, fade in color and size, and eventually peel off.
When to See a Doctor
Extreme sunburns require the attention of a doctor and cannot be effectively treated at home.
If the area is severely blistered, swollen, releasing pus, and is surrounded by red streaks, the sunburn may have developed into an infection. Other warning signs include fever, nausea, headaches, toothaches, and chills.
Most symptoms of lip sunburns are mild and can be treated without the supervision of a medical professional. Severe sunburns are rare but could cause systemic effects such as fever, nausea, and headaches, which are a sign that medical attention is required.
In most cases, sunburned lips are mildly damaged and usually heal within 4 days. The process can be sped up by avoiding sunlight, staying hydrated, and taking over the counter medications.
The easiest way to avoid sunburns is by using a daily SPF, especially between 10 AM and 2 PM during every season. In recent years, many drugstore lip balms have incorporated SPF into their formula, making it easy to take effective preventative measures.
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