little boy with mom in pool

Sunburn vs. Sun Poisoning: What's the Difference?

This year there are plenty of new tips for staying safe outdoors. Social distancing, wearing a face mask and washing your hands frequently will be the key to your safe summer. But you’ll also want to lean on one constant truth of the season: it pays to wear sunscreen.

If your body is exposed to too much sunlight, it can cause damage to your skin that can last a lifetime. Here are some tips from Community Health Network pediatrician Sheryl King, MD, to help you learn sunscreen safety and the difference between sunburns and the more serious sun poisoning.

How to Wear Sunscreen with a Face Mask

Whether you're headed to the park or the pool, face masks are a necessity for staying safe. But with sunny weather, that begs another question: if I’m wearing a mask over most of my face, do I still need to apply sunscreen as usual? The short answer: yes, you do.

UV rays can cut right through paper face masks and those made of very thin cloth. A good rule of thumb is that if you can see light through it, the sun can get through it and you need sunscreen.

Even if your face mask doesn’t let light through, there will still be times your face will be exposed to the sun’s rays. You’ll take your mask off to grab a bite to eat or to get in the pool, so sunscreen is still as important as ever.

Know Your Risk for Sunburn and Sun Poisoning 

“If you have pale skin, you really owe it to yourself to apply sunscreen before you go out in the sun,” Dr. King says. Melanin is a pigment that is responsible for the color of our skin, but it is also responsible for protecting our bodies against UV rays. Fair-skinned people have less melanin than those with darker skin, and are thus more susceptible to burns.

Regardless of your risk, remember these simple rules for sunscreen:

  1. Apply 30 minutes before you go outside. This gives your skin enough time to soak up the sun screen for the best protection.
  2. Reapply every 2 hours. It’s as simple as that!

Melanin is also responsible for your eye color. If you have green or blue eyes, you may be more sensitive to light than people with darker eyes. It’s always important to wear sunglasses to protect your retinas against direct sunlight.

Know the Signs of Sunburn and Sun Poisoning

Everyone has experienced sunburn at some point in their life. Your skin becomes red, it feels itchy or tender, and the skin may be warm to the touch. Most sunburn symptoms will fade within a couple days, but sun poisoning isn’t so simple.

“Compared to a sunburn, sun poisoning is a more serious medical condition,” explains Dr. King. It results from longer exposure to direct sunlight, and might feel like a common sunburn at first. But you’ll eventually notice symptoms like blisters, “sun rash” or even fevers, chills and nausea.

Treat Sunburn and Sun Poisoning

If you have a sunburn or sun poisoning, the first step is to remove yourself from the sun to prevent further damage. Dr. King cautions, “If you’re feeling dehydrated, especially in cases of sun poisoning, you should rehydrate with water or other drinks with lots of electrolytes.”

Compress the burned skin with a cool towel, and apply aloe vera to relieve itching. If you have blisters or a rash, resist the urge to scratch yourself. Take ibuprofen if you’re in pain, and most importantly, stay out of the sun while symptoms last.


With proper sunscreen application and COVID-19 safety precautions, you have a safe and fun summer ahead of you. For more recommendations on staying safe during your favorite outdoor activities, head over to our COVID-19 Summer Safety blog!