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Sunburns Fade, Damage is Forever

What to know about sunburn and cancer risk

Senior man applying sunscreen at the beach

During all your hours spent outside during the summer, one danger is usually avoidable: sunburn. Working in the yard or spending the day at the beach, your skin is exposed to the sun. Using sunscreen is more common these days, but do you know the real damage a sunburn can do?

How bad is your burn?

Soaking up the sun's ultraviolet (UV) light can leave you with an uncomfortable sunburn. The body naturally produces melanin, or a suntan, to stop UV rays from damaging the skin cells. Your genetics determine how much melanin you can produce, and for some, it's not enough to keep your skin safe. Too much UV light causes the skin to burn. Usually, about four hours after exposure to the sun, you'll start to notice your skin is red and sore. While uncomfortable, your sunburn is a sign your body is repairing the damaged skin. How long a sunburn lasts depends on its severity:

  • Mild sunburns typically result in redness and some pain and can last three to five days.

  • Moderate sunburns can leave skin red, swollen, and hot to the touch. This type of burn can take about a week to heal completely.

  • Severe sunburns can cause painful blistering or very red skin and can take up to two weeks to fully recover.

Power of UV rays

You may ask "what harm can one sunburn do?" Answer: A lot. Even a single sunburn can increase your risk for developing skin cancer. It's not the burn itself that affects your risk; it's the amount of sun exposure that's associated with that burn.

After a sunburn, it's common to find your burnt skin peels off. This is your body's way of getting rid of the cells that are at risk of becoming cancerous. As deeper layers of the skin absorb UV radiation from sunlight, the skin cells' genetic material can become damaged. This is what leads to a higher risk of developing skin cancer.

People of all ages and backgrounds are vulnerable to sun damage, but your risk is higher if:

  • You have freckles or very fair skin

  • Are exposed to sunlight reflected from snow or water

  • Live near the equator or at high altitudes

  • You take medications that can make your skin easier to burn.

Protect your skin

There are things you can do to protect your skin each time you step outside. If you follow these suggestions, you can lower your risk of skin damage or cancer:

  • Wear clothing to cover as much skin as you can.

  • Choose sunglasses that block both kinds of UV rays.

  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face, ears, and scalp.

  • Avoid sun exposure between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., when it is strongest.

  • Choose a sunscreen that shields you from both kinds of UV rays.

  • Apply sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.

  • If you plan on being outside longer than two hours, bring your sunscreen with you so you can reapply.

Most importantly, don't let a cloudy day fool you. Clouds only block about 20 percent of UV rays, making it easy to burn.

Caring for your burn

If you are surprised by a sunburn, take action. At the first sign of a burn, get out of the sun and drink water. Your skin lost a lot of moisture, so hydration is key. Many people find relief from moisturizers, and skin creams with vitamins C and E may help limit skin damage. Depending on how painful your sunburn is, you may want to take some ibuprofen or apply a cool compress. The next time you go outside stay covered and give your sunburn time to heal by avoiding direct sunlight for a few days.

Call your health care provider if your sunburn causes you to have a fever, chills, or nausea. These could be signs of severe dehydration or sun poisoning. With your Premium account, you can use Secure Messaging (sign in required) to send your health care team any sun exposure concerns.


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Read More

Preventing Skin Cancer (Veterans Health Library)

Sunburn (MedlinePlus)

How to select a sunscreen (American Academy of Dermatology)

Are You Protecting against Malignant Melanoma?


Updated July 16, 2019