Written by Susan Lynn Peterson Ph.D.
The image of martial arts students training outdoors is pervasive. From Beijing parks to the Shaolin Temple, from Hollywood and Hong Kong movies to “Kung Fu Panda,” the romance of outdoor training captures our imaginations.
That attractive image may have some justification. Modern psychologists speak of the outdoors as a cure for “nature deprivation disorder.” Qigong masters speak of absorbing and using the qi of the natural world.
The question then is how to train outside, how to absorb the benefits of nature, without absorbing an unhealthy amount of ultraviolet radiation, the cause of sunburn.
Sunburn is caused by the ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. When exposed to UV light, the skin tries to protect itself by producing melanin, which blocks the rays (and incidentally causes the skin to tan). If the amount of UV light is more than the body’s melanin can keep up with, the skin burns.
Burns heal, but the consequences of sunburn don’t always go away with the burn. Sunburn can cause infections, photoaging of the skin, changes in pigmentation and even skin cancer. Sunlight causes skin cancer by damaging the DNA of the skin cells. The cell growth is altered, and the cells become cancerous.
Though herbal treatments for sunburn exist, they can’t beat prevention. Obviously, covering skin—wearing ample lightweight, light-colored clothing, a hat, and sunglasses—is a good place to start. Realistically speaking, though, how many people are likely to train outside in the summer in long sleeves and long pants?
Sunscreen is another option. Not all sunscreens are created equal, however. Some work better than others. Some are safe; others contain chemicals that accumulate in the body, cause endocrine disruption, allergies, cancer and other cellular damage. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only regulates a small percentage of the chemicals in sunscreen. Only recently has the FDA announced that they will be monitoring and regulating sunscreen manufacturer’s claims to efficacy. If you choose to use sunscreen, educate yourself. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database is a good place to start.
You might also consider training in the early morning or late afternoon. The tai chi master greeting the dawn by doing the form among the trees is at low risk of getting a sunburn. During the early morning and late afternoon, the sun’s rays must travel through more of the earth’s atmosphere to reach you. Some of the UV rays get filtered out. Consequently, the safest times of day (other than night, obviously) are just after sunrise and just before sunset. By contrast, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. allow the most UV rays to reach exposed skin. The lower your latitude and the higher your altitude, the more dangerous midday becomes.
What you eat can also affect how much you burn. A niacin deficiency will cause sun sensitivity. On the other hand, the polyphenols in green tea have been shown to protect the skin somewhat from damage from UV rays. Vitamin D and C may also offer some protection. Though eating a salad before training outdoors won’t protect you from burning, in general, a healthy diet minimizes the skin damage caused by UV rays.
Certain pharmaceuticals or herbs can also make you more likely to burn. St. John’s wort, angelica and arnica all increase sun sensitivity. Antibiotics, antihistamines like Benadryl, diabetes drugs and NSAIDs like naproxen can also make you more sensitive to the sun.
When you already have a sunburn, when it’s rubbing against your clothes or keeping you awake at night, all of the above information is no longer interesting. You want information about how to make it go away.
First, let’s talk common sense. It is possible to die from a bad sunburn (a very bad sunburn). When do you go in to the doctor? If you experience nausea, vomiting, changes in consciousness or severe headaches, you may also be experiencing heat stroke as well as sunburn and should seek medical help immediately. If you are blistering badly, if you have large blisters or more than a few blisters, call a doctor and explain your symptoms. The skin is not just a cellophane wrapper for the body. The skin is an organ in its own right. If damaged too badly, the effects can seriously damage the health of the whole body.
First—and I know this is obvious—if you think you are burning, get out of the sun. If you can’t get out of the sun, cover the affected area.
If all you have is a garden-variety first-degree sunburn, in other words if only the surface layer of the skin is affected, you will most likely want to use home remedies. Do a quick search on the internet, and you will find all kinds of home remedies for sunburn. Honey, cucumber, milk, tomatoes, yogurt—the list is long. Home and herbal remedies all tend to fall into one of three categories, however. Some cool the heat of the burn. Some help prevent infection. Some help minimize the damage done by the UV rays.
First aid for burns in general involves cooling the burn under cool running water. Sunburns, like other burns, are literally hot. Cool running water can conduct some of that heat way from the body. Anything too cold, ice, for example, can damage the already damaged skin. If you look at the typical home remedy for sunburn in terms of Chinese food theory—most remedies are repurposed foods—you’ll find that almost all of them are cool or cold foods. Melons, cucumbers and yogurt are cool or cold foods. One of the coldest foods is watermelon, a common home remedy for sunburn.
If you have minor blisters, you might want to consider an antiseptic once the skin has cooled. One common home remedy is raw honey, which has antiseptic properties. Honey’s low pH and hydrogen peroxide effect make it an antibacterial. We now have evidence that honey can help keep minor skin damage from getting infected. In Chinese medical terms honey’s sweetness also makes it very dampening. As such, honey may be able to help restore moisture to sun damaged skin.
Your sunburn’s best friend, however, is witch hazel. Witch hazel is a decoction of the bark of the witch hazel tree. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory and can help take down any residual heat after you have cooled the burn. Beyond its help with inflammation, however, is witch hazel’s healing properties. Studies show that it can actually help reverse some of the cell damage caused by the sun’s UV rays.
After the burn has healed completely, if you have some scarring, consider using rose hip seed oil. Oil from the rosa mosqueta fruit is one of the best herbal treatments for preventing scarring. Use it only after the sunburn has completely healed, when all that’s left is the scar. Rubbing it in to scars can help break them up and fade them. If you get a light burn while out training this summer, herbal medicine has as much or more to offer you as biomedicine.
If you would like to learn more about the effects of sunburn and sunscreen, I suggest you review the following:
Remember, the best way to deal with sunburn, is to prevent it. Train outdoors in the early morning and late evening and cover up when you know you will be in the sun long enough to be burned.