When it comes to skin woes, most of us have probably suffered from sunburn or windburn — or both — at one time or another. In fact, on a ski trip last year that my parents promised would be fun, I somehow managed to amass both afflictions, and proceeded to spend the rest of the weekend getaway slathering aloe and Aquaphor onto my inflamed cheeks. (Mom, if you're reading this: It was so not fun).
Needless to say, I doubt I'll be hitting the slopes anytime soon, but on the off-chance that I do, I want to be better prepared. It's for this reason that I decided to take a closer look at sunburn and windburn, because, despite their similar names, the two are not mutually exclusive. You see, people (myself included, clearly) tend to get the two confused seeing as they both end with the word "burn" and elicit similar symptoms, but believe it or not, they're actually very different from one another.
"Windburn and sunburn are completely different," Adam Friedman, an associate professor of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., tells Allure. Windburn, he says, occurs as somewhat of an "irritant dermatitis" in that the wind hits the skin and pulls water out of the stratum corneum — a.k.a. the top layer of the epidermis.
Sunburn happens when we're exposed to the sun's harmful UV rays, which causes direct damage to our skin cells' DNA and can result in discoloration and age spots down the line. Sunburns can also put us at greater risk for skin cancer, which we should all know by now.
The takeaway: You definitely want to avoid both ailments at all costs, but ultimately, sunburn is more severe when you consider its long-term effects. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, explains that with both windburn and sunburn, the skin becomes inflamed, but the cause, type of damage, and the treatment are different. "Windburn is essentially severe skin dryness with disruption of the skin barrier, leading to inflammation," he says, adding that weather with low humidity puts a strain on the outer skin layer and microscopic cracks in the skin barrier can lead to loss of hydration and inflammation.
To prevent windburn, Zeichner recommends protecting the skin prior to going outdoors with a heavy-duty, humectant-packed moisturizer. "Look for a product with purified petrolatum which forms a protective seal over the skin to shield it from the environment," he says. Nowadays, rich creams come in non-greasy formulations, like Elta's The Melting Moisturizer, so you don't have to worry about looking like an oil-slick.
And, if you do develop a windburn, keeping the area hydrated is key — Zeichner says you can even use a thick ointment, like Aquaphor in especially bad cases. What's more: He advises avoiding any harsh cleansers or products that will strip the skin, as it's crucial not to further disrupt the skin barrier.
Sunburn is different in that it's caused by UV light penetrating into the skin. "When skin cells become damaged from UV light they undergo programmed cell death and shed from the skin's surface, in a process we see as peeling," explains Zeichner. To ensure you stay sunburn-free, protection is imperative: wear at least SPF 30 and make sure it's a broad-spectrum formula.
What to do if you get a 'burn? For starters, Sejal Shah, a dermatologist and founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology in New York City, suggests cooling the skin down with cool compresses, applying aloe vera to the affected area, and slathering on a soothing moisturizer, like Belif's The True Cream Aqua Bomb, while the skin is still damp. (Pro tip: Do not use any petroleum-based products immediately after getting a sunburn, as it traps the heat in the skin, which will only make the situation worse.) Take an anti-inflammatory by mouth to help with any discomfort from the burn. Finally, drink all the water-based fluids you can get.
To quickly recap, windburn and sunburn are not the same, and shouldn't be treated as such. That said, both can be prevented by protecting the skin: SPF for sunburn and petrolatum-based moisturizers for windburn. Should you have to heal either, hydrating creams and ointments should be your go-to for windburn, while sunburn requires anti-inflammatories and soothing topicals, like aloe vera.
Lastly, if you're headed to a climate where both could occur simultaneously (like the ski slopes, for instance) be sure to lather up with sunscreen and a protective base before subjecting your skin to the elements.
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