8 Strange Reasons You Got Sunburned (Even If You Wore Sunscreen!)

Updated: May 12, 2017

If you got fried in the sun, one of these surprising sunburn risk factors may be to blame.


You read on your iPad outside

University of New Mexico researchers published the results of an interesting experiment last year: They set up a mannequin head (wearing a UV light meter to detect sun exposure) and faced it toward a music stand, then placed various types of mobile devices on the stand to see how they’d impact the amount of UV light the mannequin would receive. They found that the glare reflected by an iPad could increase UV exposure by 85 percent; an iPhone can increase exposure by 36 percent. Unless devices are designed to be less reflective, or to have built-in UV sensors so people could track their exposure, the safest solution for beach or poolside readers is to slather on the sunscreen, wear a hat and sunglasses, and sit under a tree or umbrella.


You enjoy alcoholic beverages

When Harvard Medical School researchers analyzed data from 300,000 people in 2006, they made two findings. The first was that sunburn is common—34 percent of respondents said their skin had been scorched within the past year. (These home remedies can help treat sunburn). The second was that sunburn is more likely in those who consume alcohol. Heavy drinkers, those who had five or more alcoholic beverages on one occasion, had a 22 percent greater risk than teetotalers. But even those who only had one drink reported more burning. The toll from imbibing is substantial, concluded lead researcher Kenneth J. Mukamal, MD, who estimated that 18 percent of all the sunburns were attributable to alcohol use.

iStock/Joel Carillet

You have an autoimmune disease

Autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s disease often leave skin more sun sensitive—so much so that sunburn can even be a tip-off for doctors to help diagnose the conditions, says Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. “A ‘pattern’ sunburn, one that appears on the face, chest, and arms, can be a clue that this might not be your typical sunburn situation.” Sunburn and skin cancer are more likely for the 50 million Americans who have an autoimmune disease, so in addition to employing sun-safety measures, experts advise doing monthly self-skin exams and seeing your dermatologist twice a year (or as recommended) for skin checks.


You’re on antibiotics

Some drugs can increase sun sensitivity, causing the skin to burn in less time and with a lower level of UV exposure than normal. While there are many medications—including OTC pain relievers (such as ibuprofen and naproxen), oral contraceptives, and antidepressants—that may cause some type of reaction, the most common ones include antibiotics (Dr. Gohara says doxycycline and ciprofloxacin are likely culprits), diuretics, and oral and topical retinoids (like isotretinoin, acitretin, tazarotene, and tretinoin). The sensitivity should stop once the medication is eliminated from your body, but Dr. Gohara cautions that that can take a while. For instance, the vitamin-A derivative Accutane can persist in your system for a month after you’ve taken your last pill. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to see if your meds put you at increased risk of sunburn.


You’re unhappy about your appearance

Men and women who rated themselves as being “not attractive” tended to spend longer in the sun and didn’t apply sunscreen, upping their odds of getting burned and developing skin cancer, found a study in the journal Health Psychology. One possible explanation is that people feel more attractive if they have a tan because they think it reduces skin imperfections and helps them look slender and toned, explains lead researcher Aaron Blashill, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at San Diego State University. A safer way to get your bronze on? Switch to sunless tanner. These myths about sunscreen and tanning drive derms crazy.


You exfoliate your skin

Sloughing away the top layer of cells using retinoids, alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic acid, or mechanical cleansing devices is a surefire way to make skin softer, smoother, and more radiant. Ditto for having cosmetic treatments like microdermabrasion or chemical peels. However, removing those protective cells can also leave skin more vulnerable to sunburn. To safeguard any attempt at rejuvenation it’s especially important to be sun wise—after all, UV exposure is responsible for an estimated 80 percent of skin aging. Be extra vigilant about sunscreen, shade, and protective clothing.


You use sunscreen from, well, you can’t remember when

Found a tube of sunscreen buried in the glove box? Even if it has an expiration date that hasn’t passed, do your skin a favor and toss it. Sunscreens are designed to maintain their original strength for three years if kept in “a normal, ambient environment,” according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. But if they’ve been exposed to high temps or have obvious changes in color or consistency, all bets are off. Here are other sunscreen mistakes you might be making.


You wear a T-shirt at the beach

If you slip on a tee over sunscreen-slathered skin, kudos—you’re giving yourself an extra layer of UV protection. But if you depend on a regular T-shirt as your sole armor against harmful rays, you’re likely to get burned. A standard tee only provides the equivalent of about an SPF 7—and less if the shirt is wet—which is far below the minimum of SPF 30 recommended by dermatologists. “We see a lot of melanoma on the trunk and back because people wrongly think they’re protecting themselves by wearing a T-shirt,” says Dr. Gohara. Instead, choose clothing with a high ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), which measures how much the fabric will shield from UVA and UVB rays. These garments are ideal for people who are sunscreen-phobic, because whatever skin they cover is protected—no sunscreen required. (Of course, you’ll need sunscreen on any exposed skin.) Dr. Gohara recommends opting for clothes with a UPF of 50 or above, which allows just 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation to reach skin.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest