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If you have a private practice, a sunburned client might return from vacation for his or her regular, weekly massage. If you work at a resort or on a cruise ship, your client may have a one-time visit and want a massage as part of the amenities the ship has to offer. In either case, the same precautions apply. Find out how to offer relief from the pain and discomfort of sunburn, as well as some natural remedies you can safely recommend.

What Is Sunburn?

Sunburn isn’t simply a red discoloration of the skin; it’s an actual burn causing damage to the various layers of the skin. The most superficial layer, the epidermis, is the thinnest layer of the skin and most susceptible to damage even from a mild sunburn. Skin that is red, painful, hot and has some swelling would be considered a first degree burn, whether it is from the sun, a sun lamp or tanning booth. A first degree burn will usually heal in two to three days with the burned skin drying out, eventually peeling and flaking.

A second degree burn, again, whether from the sun or another source, would include damage to the skin beneath the epidermis and include the same symptoms as a first degree burn, but with more pain, more swelling and usually some blistering. Healing can take place anywhere from one week to one month depending on how deep the damage goes. There may or may not be scarring as it heals, and there is usually little or no damage to the hair shafts or skin glands.

A third degree burn would include damage to the dermis and deeper tissue. It can destroy the hair shafts, oil and sweat glands, erector pilae muscles and nerve endings. The skin might appear white or look charred. There is a greater chance of infection with third degree burns as well as fluid loss and shock. Healing involves thick scar tissue, which makes mobility of the affected area restricted. This type of burn will usually result from chemical exposure or direct exposure to fire, but it can also be the result of overexposure to the sun if that exposure lasts an extremely long time in a harsh environment.

Natural Remedies for Sunburn

A third degree burn requires swift intervention by a medical team to prevent loss of life, but some second degree burns and most first degree burns can be treated using simple home remedies*. The burns won’t go away, but the pain and discomfort can be alleviated

  • If you have been sunburned, drink plenty of water to reduce dehydration. This will also serve to improve circulation and remove toxin buildup in the body.
  • Apply cool water to the burned area. If it covers the entire body, take a cool bath. Adding oatmeal to the bath will increase the soothing effect.
  • Cornstarch or baking soda may be added to the bathwater instead of oatmeal, or you can make a paste and apply to the reddened skin.
  • Use olive, coconut or almond oil to replenish the skin and reduce the possibility of wrinkling and leathering of skin. Jojoba oil is also a good choice as it is the closest in composition to the natural oils of the skin.
  • Ice cold whole milk or plain yogurt can be applied to the skin. It will cool and soften the affected area. You can also soak towels in the milk or yogurt and wrap the burned area.
  • Aloe vera can be used on burned skin. It can be used straight from an aloe vera plant or can be purchased in the form of a lotion or cream. Caution needs to be used with purchased products. Make sure they do not contain alcohol or other ingredients that may sting.
  • Cucumbers, strawberries or raw potatoes can either be applied directly to the skin or mixed with cold yogurt or milk to form a paste.
  • Wet, cooled tea bags will draw the heat out of a painful first degree burn. You can also brew some tea, cool it and soak towels or washcloths in it and apply to the area.

*Note: These remedies should not be used on skin that is broken or otherwise compromised.

Is Massage Therapy Good for Sunburn?

The only type of sunburn that is not a contraindication for massage is a mild, first degree burn. Any second or third degree burn indicates more than just precaution, as far as massage goes, until the skin is no longer compromised and past the sub-acute stages of healing. Care must be taken to consider the client’s pain tolerance and overall health.

With a first degree sunburn, there will be various stages of healing to consider. Is the client coming in on a Monday after a weekend at the beach, or is he or she arriving for a massage a day or two later? On the first day, the skin may still feel raw and painful. By the third day the skin may already be dry and peeling – thus, it may be more itchy than painful.

  • Consider using a massage oil formula that contains ingredients specifically used for healing sunburned skin. Aloe vera is one of the most used ingredients you may find in such a product. Tea tree oil is another.
  • ¬†Use techniques that offer smooth, gentle strokes. Avoid vigorous rubbing, strokes that would be over-stimulating or any techniques that could be potentially damaging to skin or underlying tissue.
  • In cases where the rubbing of a Swedish massage, or the stretching of Shiatsu might be too much, the cooling effects of a cold stone massage might offer a more comfortable relief.

An Opportunity to Educate

Prevention of sunburn is the only way to avoid potential damage. Whether it is a client who has already experienced the pain or someone who is getting ready to go on holiday, have handouts ready for clients informing them of the importance of avoiding damage to their skin. Sun exposure is needed for production of vitamin D in the body, but too much exposure can be dangerous and result in leathery, wrinkled skin, age spots and cancer.

Too much sun over a lifetime, along with just a few episodes of sunburn, has been shown to be a factor in certain types of skin cancer (melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma). Limiting the time spent in the sun (especially between 10 am and 4 pm when its rays are the strongest), choosing clothing that covers the skin and applying sunscreen will help reduce the possibility of a damaging burn. Even on a cloudy day, 80 percent of ultra-violet (UV) can reach your skin. Water and snow intensify the effects and can cause skin damage. It is also important to wear sunglasses to avoid damage to your eyes, including temporary blindness. A tanning booth is no better and can be just as damaging to skin over time.

As a massage therapist, not only can you help your clients to feel better after getting a sunburn, yet you can also help educate them in preventing one in the first place.

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