The symptoms of a sunburn are never pleasant. From short-term redness and discomfort to peeling and blistering, you may experience a wide range of sunburn symptoms. Whether your sunburn is mild or more severe, the lasting damage remains long after the sunburn fades away.
The skin care experts at The Derm are here to explain the stages of a sunburn, including what happens beneath the surface of your skin. We’ll also cover how sunburn is treated, how to reduce your sunburn risk in the future, and when to seek professional care.
What is sunburn?
Sunburn is when your skin gets damaged from too much ultraviolet (UV) exposure. Despite popular belief, you don’t necessarily have to spend the entire day at a pool or beach to get sunburned. Many people get sunburned doing everyday things, such as walking their dog, gardening, or playing sports. The sun doesn’t even have to be shining – 80% of UV rays can penetrate clouds on an overcast day.
Sunburn typically begins to appear 2-6 hours after UV exposure, peaking within 24 hours. Mild sunburn usually lasts for a few days, while moderate or severe sunburn can take 1-2 weeks or more to heal. Some sunburns are severe enough to require hospitalization.
What are the symptoms of sunburn?
Not everyone reacts the same way to sun exposure, and symptoms will depend on how severe your sunburn is. Common symptoms of mild sunburn include:
- Skin that feels tender and/or hot to the touch
- Eventual peeling as the skin heals
Symptoms of moderate sunburn include:
- Extremely red and/or wet-looking skin
- Swelling over a larger area
- White discoloration within the burn
You may also begin to experience symptoms of heat illness, such as:
- Rapid breathing
- Muscle cramps
Symptoms of severe sunburn include:
- Numb skin
- Leathery-looking skin
- Skin that is white or dull in color
- Any of the above heat illness symptoms
- Shock or heat stroke
There are many factors that can affect how long your sunburn symptoms last. For example, people with light skin, freckles, or red hair tend to burn more easily and take longer to heal. Even the time of day can play a role – the sun’s rays are strongest from 10 AM to 3 PM.
What are the stages of a sunburn?
Here are the stages of a sunburn that your skin goes through, including the damage that occurs below the surface.
Stage 1: Blood flow
A big portion of the warmth you feel in the sun comes from the absorption and conversion of UV rays to heat by the melanin in your skin. The amount of melanin you have determines your skin color. So the darker you are, the more natural protection you have.
Whenever your skin is exposed to sunlight, your melanin automatically shifts into defense mode. The UV rays that sneak through instantly damage the DNA in the cells of your epidermis (the outermost layer of skin), prompting the blood vessels that lie below to dilate and start pumping. Pale-skinned people may start pinking up in as little as 10 minutes, while it can take an hour or more for people with darker skin.
Stage 2: Redness and inflammation
Thanks to all that extra blood flow, your skin begins to look red and feel warm to the touch after just a few hours. Inflammation also begins, adding to your swelling and pain.
The longer your skin is exposed to sunlight, the greater and deeper the extent of the DNA damage. Most of the damaged cells will automatically begin the process of dying (apoptosis), which eventually leads to shedding and peeling. However, cells that are too deep in the skin can mutate and cause skin cancer.
Stage 3: Blistering
If any cells in your skin’s dermis (the layer beneath the epidermis) are damaged as well, fluid-filled blisters may form. These blisters create a soft, protective bubble so the injured dermal tissue beneath them can heal. Blisters typically appear anywhere from 6-24 hours after initial UV exposure.
Stage 4: Peeling
Lastly, your body compensates for all the destroyed cells in your skin by creating fresh replacements called keratinocytes. These new cells replicate and slowly move through the inner layers of your skin to reach the epidermis, which usually takes about a month. When sun damage speeds up this natural process and rushes keratinocytes to the surface, they stick together like a sheet of tissue paper – and then flaky, peeling skin appears. Peeling after a sunburn can take several days to complete.
How is sunburn treated?
Most mild sunburns can be treated by:
- Using aloe vera gel or hydrocortisone cream to cool and hydrate your skin
- Taking cool showers or baths (add baking soda or oatmeal to bath water for extra soothing)
- Taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to reduce pain and swelling
- Moisturizing your skin regularly
- Drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration
- Covering your skin as it heals, especially if you go outside
Never peel your skin or pop any blisters – instead, let your skin recover on its own.
How can I reduce my risk of sunburn?
You can lessen your risk of sun damage and sunburn by:
- Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher every day (reapply every 90 minutes if you’re outdoors and more often after swimming or sweating)
- Wearing protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats
- Not using indoor tanning beds
- Using caution when you take medications that increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun
- Visiting The Derm for annual skin cancer checks
What are the long-term effects of sunburn?
It’s worth preventing sunburn whenever you can. For starters, sunburn is a leading cause of skin cancer. Just one blistering sunburn during childhood more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) later in life.
Frequent sunburns and exposure to UV rays also accelerate the aging process, often resulting in:
- Dark spots
- Other skin issues
When should I seek medical care?
Seek medical care immediately after a sunburn if you have:
- Extreme pain or swelling
- Blisters over more than 20% of your body
- A fever of 102° or higher
- Any signs of infection, such as pus-filled blisters
- Any signs of dehydration, including dark-colored urine or dizziness
- Vision changes
The Derm has your sunburn solutions
Sun exposure leaves a lasting impact on your skin. Whether you want to discuss your options for repairing sun damage or explore skin care products that protect you from sunburn, the board-certified dermatologists at The Derm are ready to help. Schedule an appointment with us today!