By Dr. Josh Zeichner
We all know what sunburn looks and feels like, but people don’t always understand what actually happens to the skin.
Ultraviolet (UV) light can be found in sunlight and tanning beds. Low-dose, long-term UV light exposure leads to tanning and skin thickening. However, getting too much exposure too quickly causes sunburn. Most sunburns are considered first-degree burns, limited to the outer skin layer. The skin often becomes red and tender and may peel as it heals.
UV light makes blood vessels dilate, making the skin appear red. This redness appears about four hours after exposure and peaks between 12 and 24 hours after. The skin becomes tender as the body releases inflammatory signals. Cells in the outer layer of the skin become damaged and may die. Over time, this inflammation leads to permanent damage to the skin’s collagen. Long-term UV exposure is associated with the development of skin cancers such as melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
People with lighter skin are at a higher risk for sunburn than those with darker skin, as pigment actually protects you against UV light. In fact, your dermatologist can categorize your skin type according to how easily you burn or tan. People with the highest risk have very fair skin, blue eyes, and red or blond hair.
So wear your sunscreen, limit your exposure to the sun, and get your annual skin checks!