When applying sunscreen, there are a few critical places that many people forget to cover—leaving themselves vulnerable to sun damage. According to the Cleveland Clinic, one of the most commonly missed parts of the body is the ears. Though this might not be the first place you'd think to apply sunscreen, the sun shines down on your ears as much as anywhere else on your body.
Forgetting to apply sunscreen here can lead to sunburned ears and even various forms of skin cancer. Fortunately, treating and preventing these issues is quite simple.
If you've had an unpleasant encounter with sunburn blisters on your ears, here's what to know and what to do.
Why it's Important to Protect the Ears
The ears are a delicate part of the body because the skin on them is thinner than other areas. A 2016 study published in PRS Open Global reported that the skin surrounding the ears behaves differently due to thinness, lack of subcutaneous adipose (fat) tissue, and close underlying cartilage.
Despite these differences, they are still exposed and all too susceptible to burning—and many people forget to protect them with sunscreen, even as they apply protection everywhere else. It's worth noting that ears are also left unprotected by baseball caps that shield your face.
Though true ear cancer (not skin cancer just of the outer ear) is rare and can be difficult to diagnose and treat, early detection is important. Ear cancer usually begins on the skin on the outer area of the ear and may spread to the inner ear, temporal bone, facial nerves, and other organs.
The most common types of ear cancer are squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and adenoid cystic carcinoma. Melanoma of the ear can also occur but is rarer.
According to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, there are approximately 300 cases of ear and temporal bone cancer in the United States each year. The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that 7 percent of head and neck melanomas are found on the ears.
Risk Factors for Ear Cancer
In general, ear cancer affects more men than women, seeing as they are more likely to have shorter hair that leaves the ears exposed. SkinVision notes that melanoma cancers in men tend to be around the trunk, head, and neck; in women, it's on the arms and legs. No matter the risk factors, sun protection is important everywhere.
Other risk factors for ear cancer include years of sun exposure, tumors that spread, fair skin, and chronic infections of the ear canal, per Cedars-Sinai.
Preventing Sunburned Ears
The best way to prevent sunburns of any kind is by avoiding or limiting exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. When driving, working, exercising, or doing other outdoor activities, it's important to take the precautions necessary to protect skin from burns and increased risk of skin cancers.
Applying sunscreen properly is one of the most effective ways to minimize the negative effects of prolonged sun exposure. The EltaMD UV Sport Broad-Spectrum SPF 50 Body Sunscreen is ideal for protection around the ears because of its high SPF and water-resistant stick factor. Don't forget to apply liberally to the entire ear, including the inner crevices.
Sun-protective clothing, such as sunglasses and sun hats (always with a dark-lined brim), are also recommended to shield the head's sensitive skin from the sun.
How to Treat Sunburned Ears
If you forgot to apply sunscreen to your ears on a day out in the sun, you may end up with visible signs of damage, such as sunburn blisters on your ears. Appearances aside, it can be quite painful, ranging from an annoying sting to throbbing tenderness.
Over-the-counter pain medications like Ibuprofen can be used to alleviate some of the pain, as can medicated Aloe gels.
Given that sunburns can be red and hot to the touch, applying a cool compress can also help soothe the area. Moisturizing sunburned skin may provide some relief, too. Just be sure to avoid picking at the area and allow the skin to heal in its own time. You'll likely experience peeling as the skin heals.
While sunburns may not be serious on their own, their cumulative effects can age you and significantly raise your risk for cancer later in life. The best strategy by far is to prevent burns and more subtle damage from occurring in the first place. Next time you're enjoying the great outdoors, do so safely by shielding your skin and frequently covering the oft-forgotten places—like the ears—with a broad-spectrum sunscreen. You'll be glad you did!