Sunburned? Here's what happens to your skin

Sunburned? Here's what happens to your skin

This is embarrassing.

As you’ve probably noticed, I’m forever reminding you to protect your skin and wear your sunscreen.

And I walk my talk. Daily sunscreen is as much a part of my morning as coffee.

But nobody’s perfect and I have to admit I blew it the other day. I was out in the sun for a long time and apparently missed putting sunscreen on my upper back. (See pic for details).

The sun burn hurt for three days and is now itching and peeling. Not good.

It started me thinking about what happens to your skin when you get sunburned. A sunburn isn’t a good thing, but your body’s response to it are pretty amazing.

What actually happens when you get a sunburn?

A sunburn is a radiation burn, which is different from the type of burn you get from touching something hot (thermal burns).

The burn from a sunburn isn’t from the heat, it’s from cell damage from the sun’s UV rays. Too much exposure to the rays damage the DNA, cell membranes and some proteins in the upper layers of skin.

Remember, there are two types of rays that can cause damage to your skin. UVB rays penetrate the outer layers) epidermis and UVA rays go deeper to the dermis.

UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and can cause the damage that results in photo aging, dry skin, and sagging. You’re generally not aware of this type of damage going on until it’s already done.



UVB rays are the sunburn causers. They can penetrate in the skin cell’s DNA and damage it. Repeated DNA damage from too much sun can overwhelm your body’s very capable repair system and cause skin cancer.

Your skin detects the damage and produces proteins that attract immune cells to come and clean up the damage.

Part of this process is that white blood cells and fluids leak into the space between the skin cells. This is what causes the redness and swelling (the ouch) of a fresh sunburn.

This process starts while you are getting burned and increases about an hour later and keeps increasing for 24-48 hours. Which is why it usually feels worse that night or the next day.

Your immune cells start cleaning up the badly damage cells and release chemicals that will further damage already weakened cells. You may have an allergic response to this clean up process that triggers itching.

If there are whole layers of skin cells that have been killed, the dead layer will lift away from the other layers and the space left will fill with the fluid that has leaked from the immune response. Blisters.

Once the inflammation starts to go away, the lower layers of your skin will produce new cells quickly. The dead layers are sloughed off the make way for the new cells and you get peeling.

Finally, to try to protect you in the future, the damaged DNA in the upper layer cells alerts the cells that produce melanin (melanocytes) to get to work and produce a tan.

A tan is your body’s attempt to protect you from further sun damage. But a tan doesn’t give you a lot of protection. It’s about an SPF 2.


What you can do if you get burned

It happens. You miss a spot with the sunscreen or stay out longer than you’d planned or forgot to reapply after sweating or going in the water.

Rule #1—Get out of the sun. By the time you feel like you’re getting burned, it’s too late. Don’t make it worse.

You can’t undo the sunburn but you can (and should) support your skin and body while it works hard to deal with the damage.

  • A cool shower or bath can cool your skin and help relieve the pain. If you’re taking a bath, you can add cooled chamomile or black tea to sooth your skin
  • Gently pat yourself dry but leave a little bit of water on your skin. Apply a moisturizer right away to trap the moisture in your skin. This will help keep your skin from getting really dry.
  • Use a moisturizer that has aloe in it.  Bonus points for a formula with antioxidants and/or vitamin C (SunUp or DewDrops for your face).  Do not treat sunburnt areas with heavy greasy products like petroleum jelly (Vaseline) because they can seal in the heat and make matters worse.
  • Don’t use aftersun products with “-caine” products (such as benzocaine). They may irritate your skin or cause an allergic reaction.
  • You can take aspirin or ibuprofen to help with pain and inflammation. If the pain persists, or if you experience a lot of blistering, nausea, fever or dizziness, it’s time to see your doctor.
  • Drink extra water to prevent dehydration.. A sunburn draws fluid to the skin’s surface and away from the rest of your body. This means you need extra water to keep yourself running smoothly.
  • If your skin blisters, don’t pick (however tempting). Allow the blisters to heal. They help protect you from infection while your skin heals.  Blistering skin means you have a second-degree sunburn.
  • Take extra good care of your sunburned skin. The last thing your skin needs right now is more damage. This means a hat to cover your face (and sunscreen, of course) and clothing that covers your skin when you’re outside. Tightly-woven fabrics work best. When you hold the fabric up to a bright light, you shouldn’t see any light coming through

    Check, check, and check. My sunburn has nearly stopped peeling and, believe me, I’m moisturizing the tender new skin and keeping it well covered when I’m outside enjoying the beautiful summer weather.

    Lesson learned.

    Have you gotten a sunburn recently? Do you have home remedies that you’ve found helpful? I would love to hear about them if you do.











    Leave a comment