Beware of Sunburns, Suntans, and Skin cancer


As a fair skinned, light hair, and light-eyed person who enjoys outside activities, I have seen more than my fair share of sunburns.  Sunburns make you literally feel uncomfortable in your own skin, and have the potential to cause more than just red skin.  Sunburn symptoms can also include:

  • Skin warm to the touch
  • Pain
  • Tenderness
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Syncope (fainting)

Your eyes, lips, and scalp can get sunburned too.  Sunburned eyes feel painful or gritty.  Sunburned corneas are the cause of “snow blindness.”  Sun damage of the eyes has been implicated as a cause of cataracts [1].  Sunburned lips feel painful, dry, and can peel.  A scalp sunburn can occur if you have no hair or thin hair. Scalp sunburns feel much like a normal sunburn, with the added effect of the subsequent peeling skin looking like dandruff.

Sunburn with blisters, three days after significant sun exposure without sunscreen. / Photo by Axelv and available via CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunburns and Suntans

Despite numerous warnings of the sun’s harmful rays, many people continue to seek a golden tan.  For both tans and sunburns, the sun is damaging the DNA of your cells.  The color change resulting in a tan is a result of more melanin production from specific cells called melanocytes.  Sunburns can occur in as little as 15 minutes.  In a sunburn, the DNA damage initiates a reaction similar to the inflammation reaction.  The damage also initiates melanin production to help protect the skin from further damage.  Both the melanin production and the inflammatory reaction which creates the sunburn take some time, which is why burns and tans don’t show up immediately.  

Despite numerous warnings, people still continue to seek golden tans / Photo available via CC0

Some people are more prone to getting sunburned than others.  People younger than 6 and older than 60 are more susceptible to sunburns.  People with darker skin naturally produce more melanin, but interestingly don’t have more melanocytes than fair skinned people.  

The sun is more intense near the equator, and during the time of day when the shadows are short.  If you are at a higher altitude, there is less protection from the earth’s atmosphere, leaving you more exposed to the sun’s rays.  The position of the sun in late spring and early summer causes more intense sun rays and an increased likelihood for sunburns.  Clouds provide some protection from the sun’s rays, but you will still need to take preventative action to avoid a sunburn.  

The pain from a sunburn typically feels worse from 6 – 48 hours after exposure. After a few days, the skin starts to peel.  This is the body shedding the damaged layer of skin.  The peeling skin can continue for weeks.  

Some people attempt to prevent sunburns by preparing a “base tan.”  This practice is not recommended as tans provide a SPF of about 2-3, which buys you approximately an additional 10-20 minutes before sun burning begins [2].  Additionally, many people use tanning beds to create the base tan.  Tanning beds typically use UVA rays to create the base tan, which provides no protection from the UVB rays, which cause the sunburns from the sun.  Worse yet, the body is comparatively ill equipped at dealing with DNA damage from UVA as opposed to UVB wavelengths, which means people that use tanning beds are at an increased risk of skin cancer [2].

There is no reason to use a tanning bed. / Photo by Evil Erin and available via CC BY 2.0

Treating Sunburn

Typically the best treatment is prevention.  Wearing sunscreen, wide brimmed hats, tightly woven long sleeves and pants, and avoiding peak sun hours of 10 am to 4 pm will all reduce your risk of sunburns.  But, if you do get sunburned, you can try some of the following steps.  

It is vital to drink water during and after significant sun exposure.  A sunburn leaves you more susceptible to dehydration.  

After a sunburn, soothing lotions with aloe and/or soy may help, but do not necessarily lessen the healing time.  I like to keep my aloe lotion (and this is my go-to lotion (affiliate) for sunburns) in the refrigerator, as the cold cream feels really nice.  Cool baths or cold compresses will also help with the pain.  Some people take NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen or aspirin, which can help with the pain and swelling.  Some lotions have benzocaine or lidocaine in it for pain relief, but that may irritate your sensitive skin so use with caution.  Some people swear by hydrocortisone cream, but scientists have not confirmed if the hydrocortisone cream reduces pain [3]

Extreme cases of sunburn need to be dealt with medically.  If you are concerned if your sunburn needs medical attention, it probably does and you should be consulting a doctor, not reading a blog written by a massage therapist.  Symptoms of extreme sunburn would be fever, chills, nausea, confusion, headache, and blisters covering much of the body.  Pus in the blisters and red streaks leading away from the blisters are signs of infection and also need medical attention.  Extreme cases of sunburn may be admitted to a burn unit in the hospital.  Doctors sometimes prescribe intravenous fluids if dehydrated and oral steroids to decrease pain and inflammation.  

The best treatment for a sunburn is prevention / Photo available via CC0

What are the long term consequences of skin damage?

Many people know that sun tans and burns can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer.  Other undesirable effects of sun damage include:

  • Premature aging and wrinkles
  • Freckles and other skin discolorations
  • Premalignant lesions (actinic keratoses)
  • Skin with a “leathery” look to it
  • “Tissue paper” skin with no elasticity which rips very easily

Wrinkles and discolored skin, likely the result of repeated sun exposure. / Photo available via CC0

Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is a very real risk of sun exposure.  Just one sunburn increases the likelihood of skin cancer from anywhere 25%-100% (100% means double the likelihood in this case, not that you are certainly going to get it).  Three specific skin cancers are correlated with UV ray exposure–melanoma, basal-cell carcinoma, and squamous-cell carcinoma.

Not surprisingly, skin cancer occurs on areas of the skin that are frequently exposed to the sun.  There is a multitude of information available to help you to recognize skin cancer, and you should consult your dermatologist if you see something suspicious on your skin.  Briefly, skin cancer can be recognized by remembering your ABCDEs.  

  • Asymmetry
  • Border (uneven, scalloped or notched)
  • Color (varying)
  • Diameter (larger than a pencil eraser, about 6 mm or more)
  • Evolving (changing in size, shape, or color)

My Conclusions

Sunburns and suntans create damage to the DNA of your skin cells, so it is extremely important to take steps to prevent sunburns and suntans.  Sunburns and sun tans result in a variety of undesirable traits and can increase the risk of skin cancer.  

Beware of the sun’s rays! / Photo available via CC0

References Cited

[1] “New Research Sheds Light on How UV Rays May Contribute to Cataract.” National Eye Institute. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 03 June 2014. Web. 21 May 2017.

[2] Maron, Dina Fine. “Fact or Fiction?: A “Base Tan” Can Protect against Sunburn.”Scientific American. Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc, 19 May 2015. Web. 21 May 2017.

[3] Faurschou, A., and H. C. Wulf. “Topical Corticosteroids in the Treatment of Acute Sunburn: A Randomized, Double-blind Clinical Trial.” Archives of Dermatology 144.5 (2008): 620-24. PubMed. U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2008. Web. 20 May 2017.


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