Expert Advice

How dangerous is a sunburn?

Damage to your skin from sunburn can be both long-term and immediate. You’re probably familiar with the immediate effects: sore and red skin that is tender or painful to the touch, followed by peeling and itchiness. However, long-term damage can also be caused by prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.

The two main types of long-term skin damage from sunburn are increased aging of the skin and skin cancer. Damage from UV rays can accelerate the skin’s natural aging process, causing your skin to become more leathery and wrinkled than it would be otherwise. And as you are exposed to more sun, freckles, moles and lesions can appear, particularly if you are light-skinned. These lesions can be precursors to skin cancer, which can begin as just a spot on the skin.

If you have a genetic history of skin cancer or are light-skinned, you are at a higher risk for skin cancer. Additionally, the more you are exposed to the sun, the more your risk increases. For example, people who use tanning beds regularly or who have been sunburned many times in their lives have higher risks for skin cancer.

Fortunately, you can help prevent skin cancer or other sun damage by being prepared for a day out in the sun. Try avoiding the sun as much as possible between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. Cover yourself when you head out with a hat with a wide brim, a long-sleeved shirt, sunglasses to protect your eyes, or all three. Use a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and make sure it also has protection against UVA and UVB rays. Without protection from both types of UV rays, sunscreen is not nearly as effective!