Sunburn: The Facts

The main cause of skin cancer is excessive exposure to UV (ultraviolet) radiation from sunbeds and the sun. Avoiding using sunbeds and taking care when enjoying the sun could prevent up to 9 out of 10 cases of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, in the UK.

According to the CDC, nearly 70% of children and more than a third of adults admit they’ve had sunburn within the past year.

Also known as Solar Erythema, sunburn occurs when the sun’s UV rays actually burn the skin. To protect the skin from UV rays, melanocytes produce melanin – a protective colouring/pigment in the skin – on a cellular level. Sunburn occurs if the number of UV rays hitting your skin is greater than the quantity of melanin your cells are able to produce. The changes that happen as a consequence occur on a microscopic level. Even our immune system is affected, as the quantity of primary cells that fight against infection and inflammation is reduced.

People tend to spend more time outdoors during the summer. Between the hours of 10am and 3pm, and during the summer months when the sun is directly overhead, UV rays are the strongest and have potential to cause the most damage. Skin cancer is more likely to develop in people who have moles, freckles, fair skin and/or a family history of skin cancer.

What is “UV”?

Our skin can be damaged by two main types of UV rays. Skin cancer can develop as a result of either of these rays.

  • The skin is deeply penetrated by UVA. It isn’t usually the cause of sunburn, but can age the skin.

What is “Sunburn”?

It doesn’t have to be blistering, sore or peeling to be sunburn. It might just appear as an area that feels tender, itchy or irritated, especially in those with darker skin. Sunburn also includes skin that has turned red or even just a little pink in the sun. Your risk of melanoma skin cancer can be tripled if you get sunburn just once every two years.

The sun’s heat is transmitted through infrared rays, which aren’t going to burn you. Sunburn comes from UV rays, which can’t be felt. That’s why, even on cool days, it’s possible to get sunburnt without noticing.

Sunburn Isn’t Immediate

If you get a sunburn, it’s not going to appear straight away. It’ll usually take around 3-5 hours for your skin to turn red after sun exposure, and 12-24 hours for the burn to reach its peak. Most sunburns will take around 72 unpleasant hours to subside.

You Can’t Get Sunburned Through Windows

The idea that you can get sunburn through a window is a complete myth, but it’s still a good idea to wear sunscreen. The ultraviolet light responsible for sunburn, UVB, is blocked by window glass in your home, work and car. However, UVA rays are still able to penetrate the glass. While these rays can’t cause sunburn, they can increase your risk of skin cancer and age your skin by damaging the collagen fibres that keep it firm.

If I Get Sunburnt, What Happens to My Skin?

The DNA (genetic material) in your skin cells can become damaged if you’re exposed to too much UV radiation from the sun or sunbeds. Skin cancer can occur if your cells’ DNA receives enough damage over time, as these cells begin to grow out of control.

Most of the damage can be repaired by your body. However, some damaged DNA can be left behind as your body’s repairs won’t be perfect. The painful symptoms of sunburn are caused by your body attempting to repair the damage done to it by the sun.

When Should I Use Suncream?

Each and every time you go outside, it’s good idea to use some form of sun care product. During the sun exposure period, doctors also advise patients that wearing a hat and protective clothing in addition to using sunscreen will provide the highest level of sun safety.

Key Tips for Sunscreen Use

  • Always make sure your sunscreen has an SPF of at least 30.
  • You should apply your sunscreen around 15 to 30 minutes before exposing yourself to the sun, and make sure your skin is dry.
  • Sunscreen should be reapplied if you go swimming or sweat. Otherwise, it needs reapplied every 2 to 3 hours.
  • Check that your sunscreen protects you against both UVB and UVA radiation.

I Have Sunburn! What Should I Do?

Skin cancer isn’t necessarily going to develop just because you’ve got sunburned this once. However, it is a good idea to avoid adding any further damage by taking more care to protect your skin in the future.

Help stop any more damage from happening by coming out of the sun and covering up if you notice your skin is turning red or pink. It isn’t safe to stay in the sun any longer than you already have, even if you put on more sunscreen.

While it can’t repair any DNA damage, after sun lotion can help to soothe your sunburn and help you feel better.

If I Do Get Skin Cancer, Will It Spread?

Skin cancers can be invasive, whether they’re melanoma or non-melanoma. Tumours can sometimes grow down through the layers of skin, as well as growing across the skin’s surface. Cancer cells can break off and spread to other parts of the body if a tumour grows through the wall of a lymph or blood vessel. This means that treatment for skin cancer is far more likely to be effective if the disease is caught early on.

For more information about skin cancer, check out Need2Know’s Essential Guide to Skin Cancer which provides expert advice and the latest research on sun safety and the treatment of skin cancer. Whether you’re newly diagnosed, caring for a friend or just curious, we have all the information you need!

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