Stages of a Sunburn

Stages of a Sunburn


When UV rays, AKA sunlight, reaches the skin, it can damage skin cells and even cause mutations which can lead to skin cancer. A major sign that your skin has been damaged is a sunburn. UVB rays contributes to the majority of sunburns. The stages of sunburn vary from person to person, depending on skin tone and length of sun exposure.

Immediate Pigment Darkening

You may notice your skin immediately looking slightly tanner while out in the sun. This is your body’s way of doing some damage control early. Your skin is attempting to protect itself by producing melanin to help absorb the rays, preventing damage from reaching the cell DNA. However, this mechanism is more common in people with olive completions or darker skin tones. Fair skin does not contain the same natural reserves of melanin to send to the front lines, and is more likely to burn the longer it is exposed to the sun.

Redness & Inflammation

You may not realize you’ve been burned until a few hours after exposure. The redness caused by a sunburn is caused by increased blood flow to the skin’s surface. Swelling and pain also become noticeable during this stage, which is called erythema. The epidermis is trying to push nutrients to the damaged skin, causing the blood vessels to dilate. The blood flow causes swelling and for the skin to feel hot to the touch. Anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can help ease the inflammation and pain.

Blistering & Peeling

Blisters with fluid may form if the skin is exposed to sunlight long enough. However, these will only form cases of severe sunburn. Most burns won’t blister, but instead start the peeling stage as the cells try to rapidly regenerate. The bottom layers of the skin create new cells called keratinocytes, and quickly push them to the top. Because this process is accelerated, these new cells do not have time to separate and flake away as they normally would. Instead, they stick together and come off in sheet-like form – hence, peeling. Moisturizers such as coconut oil can help sooth the skin or accelerate the peeling stage.


Getting sunburned, even once every two years, triples the risk of getting melanoma skin cancer. When enough DNA damage builds up, cells begin to grow out of control, sometimes resulting in skin cancer. Currently, there is no way to reverse sun damage already done to cells. Wearing SPF 30 or above, wearing protective clothing such as hats and sunglasses, and seeking shade are ways to prevent sun exposure. If in the United States, you can check the severity of the sun’s rays using the UV Index Scale. 0 to 2 is low, 3 to 5 is considered moderate, 6 to 7 is high, 8 to 10 is very high, and 11 or more means there is an extreme risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure.

Be aware of the signs of sun damage and stay safe this summer!

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