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What is sunburn? A look at what happens to your skin


what is a sunburn

Are you in denial about what happens to your skin when it encounters sun damage? The redness, the pain, the peeling, sunburn blisters- you may think it’s just a few days of discomfort and that a sunburn treatment should do the trick, but this is not the case.

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 in their life (1). To understand why sunburns are so dangerous you need to ask yourself “what is a sunburn?” 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.


What is a sunburn?

A sunburn is your skin’s response to extreme UV damage. Any tan or color on your skin is also a response to UV exposure.

There is no such thing as a “base tan” – any color is a sign of damage. The redness associated with sunburns 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.

What causes a sunburn? Any tan or redness is a clear sign that UV radiation (from the natural sun or artificial sun from a tanning bed) has damaged the genetic material (DNA) in your skin cells. You don’t have to have a severe sunburn to cause UV damage to the skin. Any damage can lead to skin cancer, which is the most common type of cancer in the United States.

what is skin cancer, skin cancer is most common cancer


Sunburn symptoms and what they mean:

The signs and symptoms of a sunburn usually manifest as pain and are your body’s attempt to repair the damage caused by the burn (2). Sunburn peeling, sunburn blisters, and sunburn itch are all signs you’ve caused severe damage to your skin.

The peeling often associated with severe sunburns 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 layers of skin form, some damage remains, and there can be an increased risk of skin cancer (2).

Not only does this greatly increase your risk for deadly melanoma, but this leads to faster aging. UV damage is responsible for 90% of visible age signs (like wrinkles) that appear on your face, so remember that next time you think about tanning.


What is sunburn poisoning?

Otherwise known as sun sick or sun poisoning, sunburn poisoning is when your sunburn is so severe that you experience the following symptoms:

  • Extreme blistering or peeling
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Intense pain and tingling
  • Chills
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Swelling
  • Headaches

If you experience these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.


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 a hot stove), skin can become red and painful, but there’s no DNA damage done to cells, as it is with sunburns. Only sunburns can have lasting effects on the body.


How to get rid of a sunburn

Although there are many blog posts about treating sunburns filled with so-called “sunburn remedies”, there is no way to undo the underlying damage. If you have a sunburn, you can ease your pain and help skin heal quicker by properly hydrating both inside and outside, but your risk for cancer and age signs don’t diminish along with the sunburn symptoms.

The most important thing is to prevent the sunburn in the first place.


How to protect your skin

The number one way to protect your skin from a sunburn is to wear a broad spectrum sunscreen every single day. Try RayDefense or SPF 50 FaceScreen to avoid getting a sunburn at all costs for the sake of your skin. If you are spending time outdoors, you should reapply your sunscreen every two hours.

what is skin cancer, skin cancer is most common cancer


Learn the correct way to apply your sunscreen in this quick video:


These 7 easy tips will also help you protect your skin and keep your youthful complexion.


If you still ask yourself “what is a sunburn?” sign up for our email newsletter here or comment below!


  1. Source:
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Comments (16)

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

kayla says:
Jul 10, 2016

i have a pretty bad sunburn right now. i went to a resort with my cousins for two days and didnt even think about sunscreen or sunburn,but i just realized that we forgot sunscreen while we were there. we were in the pool for a while on both days but i just wasnt thinking about it i dont know why. i have a concert tomorrow and im red as can be and the pain is a whole new level that ive never felt before. i got it bad on my shoulders and back that theres blisters. i got it on my face but only my forhead hurts. i got it on my arms but not as bad as my shoulders. this is driving me crazy i just want it to go away!!! and to add on, i have a 3D class witch is learning how to tumble and stuff on tuesday july 12th 2016 thats when i start and im so scared i wont be able to do anything bc of this….UGHH the struggle of being pale andyoung.

kayla says:
Aug 1, 2016

how do i stop the itchyness?

Teresa Stenzel
Teresa Stenzel says:
Aug 3, 2016

If your skin is still blistering and red, the only thing you can do is apply cold compresses. Once your skin has stopped peeling, you can resume your regular skin care routine. What condition is your skin in at this point? How does it look?

Samuel Jackson says:
Sep 25, 2016

I am 13 almost 14 and yesterday had a football game for about a hour or two and forgot to put on sunscreen. Both my arms are red but my left arm is the worst. I have a ton of blisters on bicep to elbow area. I applied aloe and I need to know what to do next.

Ariane Castonguay says:
Apr 2, 2018

ever since I was a kid, I never had a sunburn, but two years ago, when i was on a vacation, I went to the beach and had my first sunburn. It was really painful. I even had blisters. Luckily, It was just on my nose and cheeks, But even after two years, the second I get some sunlight, my skin hardens and becomes brown and peels off. It is not ainful anymore, but really anoying.

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