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What happens to your skin when you get a sunburn?


Are you in denial about what happens to your skin when it encountered sun damage? The redness, the pain, the peeling… it’s not just a few days of discomfort. The truth is, a person’s risk for melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer – doubles if she or he has had five or more sunburns*. So let’s take a closer look at what happens to your skin when you burn, and why you should always wear a broad spectrum sunscreen:

The Burn
A sunburn is a clear sign that UV radiation (from the natural sun or artificial sun beds) has damaged the genetic material (DNA) in your skin cells. This damage can lead to skin cancer. The redness is caused by extra blood in the capillaries – if you press on sunburned skin it will turn white and then return to red as the capillaries refill.

The Pain
The symptoms of pain you feel from a sunburn is your body’s attempt to repair the damage caused by the burn.**

The Peeling
Your skin is damaged after a sunburn, and the peeling you experience is your body’s way of getting rid of the damaged cells. This is necessary because sun damaged cells are at risk of becoming cancerous.** Even though new skin layers of skin form, some damage may remain, and there may be an increased risk of skin cancer.**

A Sunburn vs. a Hot object burn
Sunburns are caused by the sun’s UV rays – which do not feel warm. (That’s why you can get a sunburn on a cool, cloudy day!) When a hot object is touched (like hot stove), skin can become red and painful, but there no DNA damage is done to cells, as it is with the sunburn. Only the sunburn can have lasting effects on the body.

We love this clever video from the people at SunSmart UK:

Do you remember your first (or last) sunburn? Tell us about it in the comments!

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Comments (10)

teresa says:
Jun 14, 2012

When I was in my early 20’s, I went to a water park, applied a bit of sunscreen and then spent the next 8 hours in the blazing sun in the water. Because I didn’t apply enough sunscreen, and then did not reapply at all, I got a hideous burn that left me feverish, almost purple, and a lovely giant, red and swollen face. I will never forget the pain!

candice says:
Jun 18, 2012

Many years ago staying at a resort in Mission Bay, Ca. on a very cloudy August day, we played on the beach at the waters egde from early until dark.

Fyi…sunscreen products were not available at this time. We learned from lifeguards to use of zinc oxide to protect areas of our faces. Not a good look.

Later that day, I remember my skin feeling as if it were on fire. I looked a mess on my back and legs for a long time.

The number one, universal skin care product for all skin is a Broad Spectrum Sunscreen.

Cory says:
May 5, 2014

Yesterday,which was 5/4/2014.It burns!I wish that I had brought sunscreen.I was driving a four wheeler all day.Also,why does actual heat still hurt if sunburns aren’t really caused by heat?Do sunburns just make things sensitive?Also,if people are wondering,my arms were sunburned.

    Barbara Salomone says:
    May 5, 2014

    A sunburn comes in many levels. It’s an injury to the skin. It’s a ‘burn’. Therefore, it will hurt. The burn is caused by the invisible UVB rays that penetrate into your skin’s layers. Since it’s a wound, it will make everything sensitive. Every nerve ending in your skin is saying OW! Depending on how severe your sunburn is, it may just turn red, or in more severe cases may blister and fester. I do hope that you feel better soon, and avoid sun altogether until your burn heals completely. Cold compresses help. Keep your skin covered. And please don’t risk burning your skin again- protect it by always wearing a broad spectrum sunscreen, whether you are four wheeling or just driving to the grocery store. I love our RayDefense SPF30. You do need to reapply throughout the day to help keep your skin protected.

    Warm regards,


kerryssa wainwright says:
May 6, 2014

The main sunburn I remember is when I was6years old I was in the pool I fell asleep and I got out and I was as red as a lobster my dad was very worried and now I burn really easily

Jackie says:
Aug 20, 2014

When I was in my early 20s, I got a severe sunburn. Besides the excruciating pain of the burn itself, it caused me to retain fluids in my body. I could not move my arms because of the fluid build-up. I had to have help getting dressed and doing other things. It was awful and it took several weeks before all of the symptoms were resolved.

Rbe says:
Aug 28, 2014

I am a teen and about 2 weeks ago I spent about 7 hours In The sun with a 1 piece swimsuit on I applied sunscreen to all of my body except my back because I forgot to put sunscreen on it . The next day I discovered a very hot red large circle because that is how my bathing suit is it has a circle on it’s back. It stung for 5 days then it started to peel now I have a brown circle on my back now I will always remember to put sunscreen on

Liv says:
Mar 1, 2015

Thanks this was awesome help for my science assignment :)

preti khan says:
Jul 28, 2015

omg!!! no i do not want skin cancer but my sunburn is different i am black its not red but my skin is peeling what should i do please reply me immediately i am very scared ASAP barbara salomone

Teresa Stenzel
Teresa Stenzel says:
Jul 31, 2015

Hi Preti, I can answer this for you! No matter what genetic makeup you are, you are at risk. Even if you have a darker skintone naturally and don’t turn red, the fact that you are peeling concerns me. Have you ever seen a dermatologist to have your skin checked? I recommend everyone do this once a year. It may be that you are just dehydrated. I would be sure to advise you to wear a broad spectrum sunscreen and reapply as directed if you are spending time out of doors. We all need to protect our skin. Every day. Thank you for contacting us, and don’t worry. Just take precautions and if you are concerned, see a doctor. Warm regards,
Teresa Stenzel
Bioelements Director of Education

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