Summer may seem like a far-distant memory, and thus the fear of sunburn from spending too much time in the sun, but sun exposure and skin damage don’t really care what time of the year it is; truth be told, UV exposure is going to cause sun damage if you’re not taking preventative care of your skin, whether it’s February or August.
While you’re probably not going to be experiencing sunburn any time soon (or, hopefully, ever again), it’s still important to acknowledge that these things do happen, and when you’re busy bookmarking your favorite sunburn-soothing remedies for next year, there’s one remedy you might want to shy away from: using an Earl Grey compress on your painfully red skin.
Sun Exposure, Your Skin, and Sun Burn… How Does it Happen?
Despite my work here, I’m no exception to sunburn; this summer, I spent five days camping in the heat and humidity of Tennessee without adequate shade, and despite applying sunblock after what felt like every five minutes, I ended up with some pretty severe sunburn that outlined my proclivity for tank tops and my CamelBak during that trip. This excessive sun exposure caused quite the damage, both at eye and microscopic-level.
On a microscopic level, “critical” amounts of sun exposure (typically UVA radiation) results in DNA damage as UV radiation excites DNA, triggering your body’s defense mechanisms against free radicals that can cause signs of aging and cancer. Antioxidants will try to repair DNA and your body will increase melanin production to prevent future damage (Medical News Today).
Perhaps more worrying and visible at the present is the damage done by UVB radiation (think of UVA for “aging” and UVB for “burning”), which causes painful and warm erythema (redness) that peaks within 12-24 hours, although the burn could continue to develop for up to 72 hours. After a day of prolonged exposure, you’re likely to notice tender, red skin, and potentially even blisters. If it’s particularly bad, you may experience sun poisoning, which results in fever, chills, nausea, a rash, and potentially even hospitalization (Medline Plus).
Black Tea, Green Tea… What’s the Difference?
Black, white, oolong, and green tea all come from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, but it’s how you harvest the leaves that makes all the difference. Green tea, for example, is produced from freshly-harvested leaves, whereas black tea comes from full wilting and oxidation of C. sinensis leaves, which is why the two teas have different chemical compounds (WebMD, National Cancer Institute).
You’re probably familiar with the antioxidant powerhouse conveniently known as epigallocatechin-3-gallate (rolls right off the tongue), hereafter known as ECGC. While it’s mostly found in green tea, black tea does contain ECGC (although in far lesser amounts than green tea), which is known for its anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic properties (Archives of Dermatology). Black tea does, however, contain theaflavin-3,3′-digallate, which has been shown to be more effective than ECGC at inhibiting nitric oxide synthesis. Thus, this polyphenol would also help with reducing post-sun skin inflammation (Carcinogenesis, European Journal of Pharmacology).
Another key difference? Black tea contains more tannins, which is what gives black tea its dark color and different mouth feel. And while tannins have quite the bad reputation due to tannic acid’s tendency to cause irritation when inhaled or consumed, the tannin found in tea is different from tannic acid, which isn’t actually found in tea. So if you’re worried about potential irritations from tannic acid, you shouldn’t be worried here (Journal of Pharmeceutical Science and Research).
But How is Earl Grey Different?
What gives Earl Grey its posh status is the addition of bergamot oil, which comes from the rinds of a sour citrus fruit found in the Mediterranean area (Livestrong). One the one hand, bergamot oil showed 100% antioxidant activity in an aldehyde/carboxylic acid assay performed by researchers, which is promising; but on the other hand, its main component limonene, which has been shown in patch tests to cause irritation that can last for up to 24 hours (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, International Programme on Chemical Safety). Plus, limonene will increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, which is less-than-ideal for your already sun-damaged skin (JAAD, Contact Dermatitis).
Let’s look at the case of a 33-year-old woman admitted to a hospital burn unit in the United Kingdom with 70% superficial partial thickness burns. After using six drops of bergamot oil and six drops of geranium oil in an aromatherapeutic bath, she then went into a tanning bed, after which she saw increased redness and blistering for 48 hours. Doctors determined that the sole cause was a compound called 5-methoxypsoralen, which is found bergamot oil (British Journal of Dermatology).
While black tea isn’t the best choice for anti-inflammatory remedies (look more to green tea), it still has some polyphenols that should work well to fight inflammation. But the trick is that choosing an Earl Grey tea might actually make your sunburn worse once you inevitably step out into the sun again. So instead of looking to some tea bags to soothe your skin, instead opt for over-the-counter products with cortisone to help with inflammation, ibuprofen to relieve your pain, and aloe vera to soothe your skin. And, as always, apply sunscreen before you go outside to prevent such uncomfortable damage.