There is no question about it; sun is great for the soul, but terrible for the skin. Sunburn can occur with any unprotected exposure to natural or artificial UV light sources, such as the sun or tanning booths. Although anyone is at risk, regardless of skin color or climate, it is more likely to occur in those with fair skin who spend long periods of time in high-intensity sun.
The main injury responsible for sunburn is direct damage to DNA by UV light, resulting in the actual death of skin cells. The inflammation associated with this process causes blood vessels in the skin to dilate, giving the characteristic lobster color we all associate with sunburn. Within a couple of hours after exposure the skin cells begin to die; redness usually starts at about three hours, peaking at 24.
It is important to note that even a tan, which results from less-intense sun exposure, is a condition that is almost as toxic as sunburn.
Other symptoms may include:
The rash usually fades within a week with scaling or peeling, but the damage can continue over years resulting in skin cancer, sunspots, wrinkles and saggy skin.
Is Getting Some Sun Going to Kill Me?
Skin cancer is the most common malignancy in the United States — more common than the incidence of breast, lung, prostate and colon cancer combined. In fact, one in five Americans will get a skin cancer diagnosis at some point in their life, and every hour one person dies from this disease. The good news is that with judicious sun protection and medical exams the problem can be largely avoided.
One of the main culprits behind skin cancer, or melanoma, is sunburn. According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 50 percent of all adults report at least one sunburn per year. The same research showed that two-thirds of U.S. children sunburn every summer. CDC numbers also highlight that no one is immune to sunburn, as substantial portions of the Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native populations responding to study surveys also reported acquiring sunburns. But here is the clincher: Just one blistering sunburn or five non-blistering sunburns in young adulthood double one’s lifetime risk of getting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
- Skin cancer is the most common malignancy in the United States — more common than the incidence of breast, lung, prostate and colon cancer combined.
- CDC numbers also highlight that no one is immune to sunburn, as substantial portions of the Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native populations responding to study surveys also reported acquiring sunburns.
The frightening reality is that melanoma is the second most common malignancy amongst women in their 20s because of such excessive unprotected exposure to UV rays, particularly in the form of tanning booths, Just one session in adolescence increases lifetime risk of melanoma by 20 percent. (Young men are not as vulnerable as young women in this regard.)
Generally speaking, people who begin using tanning beds before age 35 increase their risk of melanoma by 75 percent, and anyone who has ever used a tanning bed increases risk by 15 percent.
It is often forgotten that, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, UV light is on the list of carcinogens next to nicotine and nitrogen mustard. So think of it this way — a child with sunburn is just as bad as a child with a cigarette! All of these statistics mean one simple thing: Regardless of age or ethnicity, there is still very much a need to spread the word on effective, manageable ways to increase sun safety.
- The frightening reality is that melanoma is the second most common malignancy amongst women in their 20s because of such excessive unprotected exposure to UV rays, particularly in the form of tanning booths, Just one session in adolescence increases lifetime risk of melanoma by 20 percent.
Is Getting Some Sun Going to Kill Me?
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How to Prevent Your Skin From Peeling After a Sunburn
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- Guerra KC. Sunburn. StatPearls [Internet]. November 2019.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heat-related Illnesses.
- National Health Service. Just five sunburns increase your cancer risk. June 2014.
- American Cancer Society. Ultraviolet Radiation.
- Couteau, C., Diarra, H., and L. Coiffard. Effect of the Product Type, of the Amount of Applied Sunscreen Product, and the Level of Protection in the UVB Range on the Level of Protection Achieved in the UVA Range. International Journal of Pharmaceutics. 2016. 500(1-2):210-6. doi:10.1016/j.ijpharm.2016.01.041
Mona Gohara, M.D., practices general dermatology in Connecticut as part of the Advanced DermCare team. She graduated from the Medical College of Ohio, where she was a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society. She completed her medical internship at New York University Medical Center and her residency in dermatology at Yale University.