What really happens when you sunburn?

Nothing says “Hey, look at me!” like a lobster-red sunburn. While the embarrassment passes after a few days when the color fades and peeling stops, the damage to your skin never fully heals.

Sunlight is made up of multiple forms of radiation, including ultra violet (UV) radiation, which damages skin cells. A sunburn is your body’s natural reaction to the damage caused by too much UV radiation. Within a few hours of overexposure to UV radiation, your body sends extra blood to the skin to help heal the damaged skin cells. That’s what makes sunburned skin so red. If the burn is more severe, pockets of liquid known as blisters form over the injured areas to protect them from further damage.

Some people may think a tan protects against sunburns, but that’s not true. Even tanned skin can be damaged by UV radiation, and people with very dark skin can get sunburned if exposed long enough.

David Weng, MD, medical oncologist, recommends soothing sunburns with aloe and moisturizing sunburned skin with creams and oils that contain vitamin E and A. “These don’t repair the skin, but they provide comfort while the skin heals itself,” he says. After a day or two, the injured skin cells die and begin to peel off. The outward signs of sunburn are gone, although the damage from even one sunburn never goes away.

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Although a sunburn is a clear sign your skin has been injured, UV radiation harms the skin even when you don’t get burned. UV radiation damages the genetic material, or DNA, in your skin cells, which can lead to mutations that cause skin cancer.

Tanning beds are the worst kind of radiation exposure.

Whether or not someone gets a sunburn, exposure to UV radiation through regular sunbathing and indoor tanning are major risk factors for skin cancer.

“Tanning beds are the worst kind of radiation exposure,” says Dr. Weng. “They provide an intense amount of damaging radiation that significantly increases the risk of skin cancers.”

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. According to the U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group, melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, kills nearly 10,000 people every year.

In addition to increasing the risk of skin cancer, sunburns and repeated tanning cause wrinkles and lead to premature aging of the skin. “The skin cells don’t regenerate as well,” says Dr. Weng. “They lose elasticity, the ability to stretch and come back. Wrinkles tend to be deeper and more common in areas of the skin that have been heavily exposed to UV radiation.”

The best way to prevent skin damage is to avoid indoor tanning and protect yourself from daily exposure to UV radiation. Apply sunscreen with at least SPF 15 before going outside, and reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating. Wear sun protective clothing, and try to stay in the shade as much as possible.

Author

David Weng, MD, is a medical oncologist at AAMC Oncology and Hematology.

Originally published April 26, 2016. Last updated June 10, 2019.

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