What Actually Happens to Your Skin When You Get Sunburned

We’ve all been there before, enjoying a sunny day and before you know it, you begin to feel a little extra heat in your skin. If you catch it early enough, it results in a few pink tan lines and only mild discomfort. If you’re less fortunate, your skin may turn bright red, blister and be so painful it’s hard to take a shower or fall asleep. 

Not getting burnt is kind of like not drinking too much. Yea, we know you’re not supposed to, but sometimes it happens, like when the temperature first hits 80 after a long winter, or when margaritas are half off. But what actually happens to your body and your skin when you get burnt? Are there more serious implications other than just some tender shoulders and flakey skin? The short answer is yes, so let’s see what we’re actually doing to our poor epidermis when we forgot to lather on the sunscreen. 


Let’s start by talking about radiation. Radiation is what makes x-rays work, microwaves heat, and it’s what gives sunlight it’s warmth. When you start to feel your skin get that warm-almost-burnt feeling, it’s not the actual heat from the burning of the sun, it’s the sun’s radiation frying your skin. Specifically ultra-violet, or “UV” radiation is particularly harmful to your skin’s cells. It damages DNA, which stops the synthesis of key proteins and enzymes in the body. This causes blood vessels to dilate and inflammatory cells to activate, which is why sunburned skin can be red, swollen and painful. 

If you’ve ever had skin peel a few days after a sunburn, it’s because the sun’s radiation has damaged the skin cells’ DNA so bad that the skin cell died prematurely. Basically, a sunburn is your skin being nuked by the sun.  Anything that damages DNA is worth taking seriously, and the body does have mechanisms to repair damaged DNA after overexposure to the sun. However, the more often your skin is burnt, the more likely some cells will live without having their DNA repaired. These cells that survive with mutated DNA can eventually lead to skin cancer. 

Sunburnt Skin

We can’t see individual skin cells dying or DNA being mutated, but we can see (and feel) our skin turn pink, tighten and sometimes peel. As I mentioned above, the pinkish-red color is your body’s natural response to damaged skin. The redder you turn, the more inflammation your skin has. That tightening you feel when your skin is burned is your body losing moisture. Burnt skin is extremely dehydrated, and your body will pull moisture from other parts of your body to try and compensate. Flakey, peely skin is due in part to dehydration, and also in part to it dying prematurely. As if peeling skin wasn’t bad enough by itself, now you know that each flake of skin that peels off is not only dead, but also mutated. 

Tan Skin

All bodies are different, and after a sunburn, some people’s skin quickly becomes tanner after only a few days of redness. Others don’t get their tan on until after their burnt skin peels off. And some people don’t experience any tanning after burning, peel or not. But before you start feeling sorry for these non-tanners, know that your skin becomes tanner because the skin cells thicken with an increase of melanin. Melanin is a pigment produced naturally by the body, and it’s what gives us our hair and skin color. The increased production of melanin is one of the body’s natural defenses to the harmful effects of the sun’s UV radiation. The thickening of tan skin combined with dehydration is why it often looks leathery and stiff.  

Wear Sunscreen!

Who knew that friendly warm ball of fire in the sky could be so dangerous? Actually, everyone knows. Seriously, everyone. So protect yourself from those UV rays and lather up with a strong SPF sunscreen. 

SPF stands for “sun protection factor” and refers to how well the sunscreen protects against one type of UV radiation called UVB. UVB rays are what causes sunburn and have been shown to cause several types of skin cancer. Another type of sun radiation called UVA doesn’t cause burns, but does penetrate deeper into the skin and is responsible for causing premature wrinkling, age spots and can increase the risk for certain skin cancers. 

Sunscreens labeled “broad spectrum” block both UVA and UVB radiation (although there is no standard for listing UVA-blocking power). The SPF rating you see on sunscreens refers to its ability to block UVB radiation. In general, the higher the rating, the better it is for your skin. Here’s what different SPF ratings are supposed to do:

  • SPF 15 blocks about 94% of UVB rays;
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays;
  • SPF 45 blocks about 98% of UVB rays

Unfortunately, there is no sunscreen on the market that blocks 100% of all UVB rays. 

The next time you plan on enjoying some fun in the sun, remember to apply (and re-apply) sunscreen.

If you’re looking for a good sunscreen to wear under your makeup, check out our Top 8 Sunscreens for Your Face here!


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