Sometimes, even with your best protection efforts, it happens: You get sunburned. While on the surface, it’s easy to see the effects of sunburn — red, irritated skin that aches and is hot to the touch — most of us never stop to consider what actually happens to our bodies when we get sunburned. Sure, we know that sun protection is important and sunburn is best avoided. But do we really know why?
To help uncover the mystery, here are a few lesser-known facts about what happens when you get sunburned.
Sunburn is classified as an “acute toxic reaction.”
While you already may be aware that sunburn is caused by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, it’s more specifically caused by a reaction that damages the DNA molecules in your skin.
When skin molecules are damaged, different proteins and enzymes are synthesized.
We’re most familiar with the synthesis of proteins and enzymes that leads to the physical symptoms of sunburns. When proteins like prostaglandins and cytokines are synthesized, the blood vessels dilate in response and inflammation occurs.
It can take a couple of hours for these proteins to generate, which is why symptoms might not show up right away.
Don’t wait for your skin to start looking red to take a break from the sun. By that point, the damage has likely occurred hours before.
Your sunburned skin feels hot to the touch due to increased blood flow.
The inflammatory response to the ultraviolet radiation exposure causes increased blood flow to the area, which makes your skin feel warm and almost feverish.
The damage to your skin’s DNA molecules is one of the reasons your skin peels when healing from a sunburn.
If a sunburn is bad enough, the skin cells will be too damaged to repair themselves, which is why you may notice the top layer of your skin peeling off. Generally, a peeling sunburn isn’t anything to worry about, but frequency and continued exposure can cause potential health risks.
If some of the damaged DNA can’t be repaired, your risks of skin cancer increases.
When your skin’s DNA molecules are damaged with frequency or severity, they may not be able to be fully repaired, which can lead to mutated DNA, which can lead to skin cancer. In fact, if you experience more than five sunburns in your lifetime, your risk for developing melanoma can actually double.
So, now that you know exactly what a sunburn does to your body, let’s review some sun protection tips so you can avoid this painful and potentially harmful reaction.
- Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen and reapply at least every 90 minutes if you’re spending a lot of time in the sun — more if you’ve been sweating or swimming.
- Avoid sun exposure during the time of day when the ultraviolet rays are most powerful — typically from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. If you can’t avoid being in the sun during those hours, make sure you seek frequent shade.
- Wear clothing that covers your skin as much as possible when you can.
- Wear a hat to protect the extra-sensitive skin on your face and scalp.
- Schedule regular checkups with your dermatologist to get your skin checked.
- Double-check the expiration dates on your sunscreen bottles before using to make sure they’ll still be effective.
Want to learn more about the dangers of skin cancer? Download our free infographic here.