What Really Causes a Sunburn (and How to Treat It Fast!)

'Tis the season for forgetting the SPF (and ending up lobster-red). Learn what actually causes a sunburn and how to treat it right.
What Really Causes a Sunburn (and How to Treat It Fast!)

With the summer sun still beating down, spending quality time outdoors is a given. But when we forget to slather on SPF, many people fall victim to nasty, no-fun sunburns. Find out what actually causes the skin to burn to a crisp and how to soothe the pain in no time.Photo: Kirrus

Burning Man — The Need-to-Know

There’s nothing to laugh about when it comes to this type of roasting. Sunburns are most common among adults 18 to 29 years old (guilty as charged), with 65 percent of white adults reporting at least one sunburn per year Sunburn and sun protective behaviors among adults aged 18-29 years--United States, 2000-2010. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbitidy and Mortality Weekly Report, 2012 May 11;61(18):317-22..

Surprise! It’s not the heat that causes the burn — it’s excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. When exposed to UV rays released from the sun, the skin produces melanin, a substance that protects us from the sun and gives our skin its color. However, when we come in contact with too many UV rays (hello, beach bums), the body can't produce enough melanin to protect the skin. It normally takes a few hours for a sunburn to actually become visible, so we may be in the red even before the burn even appears.

But it goes beyond red skin and weird tan lines. In some cases, blisters can form, and the skin may even swell — a condition called edema. In more severe situations, sunburn can turn into sun poisoning, which can cause fevers, chills, and nausea. How we react to the sun (aka how much melanin we can produce) is mainly based on genetics, but we should all slather on the sunscreen just to be safe What Controls Variation in Human Skin Color? Barsh, G.S., PLoS Biology, 2003 October; 1(1): e27

Plus, studies show that getting burnt to a crisp as a kiddo or young adult can significantly increase a person's risk of developing a melanoma (which can lead to skin cancer) later in life Sunburn in children and adolescents: associations with parents' behaviour and attitudes. Behrens CL, Thorgaard C, Philip A, Bentzen J. Danish Sun Smart Campaign, Department of Prevention and Documentation, Danish Cancer Society, Copenhagen, Denmark. The Scandinavian Journal of Public Health. 2013 May; 41(3):302-10.

Aloe-ha? — Your Action Plan

The best way to treat a sunburn is to prevent it from happening in the first place! Make sure to apply sunscreen over the entire body (especially if headed to the nude beach). Any part of the bod can be burned, including earlobes, the scalp, lips, and eyes. But if it’s a little too late, try these tips to treat the burn:

Have you ever dealt with a painful sunburn? What did you find was the best way to treat the burn?

Originally posted on August 13, 2012. Updated July 2013. 

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