Here's How to Tell the Difference Between Sun Rash and Sunburn

And, more importantly, how to treat it.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

While there's nothing quite like basking in the sun on a warm day, doing so comes with some serious downsides if you're not careful — that's common knowledge by now. The sun's UV rays are most famously the number-one cause of skin cancer and can contribute to other skin concerns, such as acne and fine lines. But far less talked about is a common skin irritation that should be on your radar as the temps rise: sun rashes.

If the word "rash" freaks you out, don't worry: Sun rashes are easy to prevent and even easier to treat, as long as you keep a few things in mind. Read on to get the scoop on sun rashes and what you can do about them before your next beach weekend.

Related:Sunscreen Facts and Myths You Need to Know About

What Is a Sun Rash?

A sun rash is a rash that develops because of a sensitivity to UV light, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. The telltale signs includee redness, swelling, bumps, welts, itchiness, and sometimes pain.

However, not all sun rashes are created equal, according to Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. A few examples include "polymorphous light eruption, hives related to sun exposure known as solar urticaria, and photo contact dermatitis, which is a rash that develops when UV light interacts with photosensitive internal or topical allergens such as those found in sunscreens," she says.

How Do You Get A Sun Rash?

A sun rash can occur whenever you're exposing your skin to the sun's harmful UV rays, but its exact cause can vary. Dr. Garshick says that some individuals may be exposed to a certain irritant or allergen that makes them more likely to develop a sun rash or sensitivity. It can happen to just about anyone. "Anyone can develop a sun rash," says Dr. Garshick. "It often affects individuals with lighter skin starting in their 20s to 30s." However, you're at risk whatever your age and skin tone.

Sun Rash Versus Sunburn

It's easy to mistake a sun rash for a sunburn, but there are a few key differences. "A sunburn is caused by UVB rays, which physically cause a burn to the skin — which leads to large, uniform patches of red, swollen skin on any unprotected body-surface area," says Dr. Zeichner. Meanwhile, "polymorphous light eruption occurs in exposed areas, but the rash is more blotchy and bumpy," he says.

Another way to look at it: Sun rashes oftentimes look like bumps or hives, while sunburn is generally a flat red patch, says Dr. Garshick. Plus, they may both feel different. "While both may be associated with blistering, some people may report sun rashes to be more likely to be itchy," she says. "Sunburns may be more painful." When in doubt, it's always wise to seek help from a professional. If you're concerned, see your board-certified dermatologist for confirmation — and a skin-cancer screening, while you're at it.

Related:How to Get Rid of a Sunburn Quickly

Can a Sun Rash Heal on Its Own?

Sun rashes can fade over time. But because the skin can experience delayed inflammation, the rash may actually appear days after you're exposed to the sun. Dr. Garshick still advises treating sun rashes to reduce symptoms, such as itchiness, associated with it just in case.

How Do You Treat Sun Rash?

The good news: Sun rashes are relatively easy to treat. Topical steroid creams can help reduce inflammation, while oral antihistamines are helpful for hives, says Dr. Garshick. Be sure to use cleansers and moisturizers with gentle ingredients to avoid irritating the skin even further; she's a fan of Dove Irritation Care Body Wash and CeraVe Moisturizing Cream. Meanwhile, Dr. Zeichner recommends Eucerin Advanced Repair Lotion, since you can easily spread it over large areas of the body to repair skin from head to toe.

Always, but especially during this time, it's critical to seek shade and find ways to protect your skin against the sun's harmful UV rays, such as wearing UPF clothing. Also, continue using sunscreen on a sun rash to prevent it from getting worse. "I often recommend using mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as these tend to be less likely to cause further irritation or allergy," says Dr. Garshick, who recommends Vanicream Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50+, BeautyPie UltraLight Daily SPF 30 Sunscreen, or EltaMD UV Pure Broad-Spectrum SPF 47."

If the sun rash continues to get worse after a few days or if you need help with a skin-care routine to prevent a reaction from happening again, pencil in a visit with your doc.

Related:How to Apply Sunscreen the Right Way, According to Derms

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