Radiating sun with images of sunblock, a sun hat, sunglasses, and an anti-tanning bed icon all in bubbles.

How Dangerous Are Sunburns?

Recently, I overheard a coworker talking about how sunburned she was. She was mentioning to another coworker how she hadn’t been able to come in to the office the previous day because of her sunburn. She said her feet had been too swollen to fit into her shoes and her skin had hurt.

It was a terrible sunburn

That in and of itself made me cringe, but once I saw her, I really cringed. She was wearing a sleeveless top, and her shoulders and upper arms were peeling. Not a little bit of peeling, but skin-rolling-off-her-arms peeling. Her arms were still bright red. Even worse? I then heard her and another coworker talking about how they usually get a pretty bad sunburn for the first few times in the sun each year, but then they’ll tan.

Every sunburn causes skin damage

Whether they realize it or not, they are doing a lot of damage to their skin. At a minimum, sunburns cause long-term effects.

According to the Mayo Clinic, some of these are:1

A reduction in skin's strength and elasticity
Deep wrinkles
Dry, rough skin
Fine red veins on cheeks, nose, and/or ears
Freckles
Age spots

Sunburns cause skin cancer, period

The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that sunburn is a leading cause in the majority of cases of actinic keratosis, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.2Repeated sunburns raise one’s risk for skin cancer, and having just one blistering sunburn in childhood doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life. Even though a sunburn may fade, the damage done by that burn remains.

Your eyes can be damaged by the sun too

Not only can skin get sunburned, but eyes can as well. The American Academy of Ophthalmology (“AAO”) recommends that people start wearing proper eye protection at an early age to help shield eyes from years of ultraviolet exposure. From Dr. Michael Kutryb of the AAO, “UV radiation, whether from natural sunlight or indoor artificial rays, can damage the eye’s surface tissues as well as the cornea and lens.”3 The damage to eyes from the sun can lead to cataracts, eye diseases, and tumors.

It's all avoidable!

There is some good news, though, which is that sunburn is completely preventable. It can be nearly impossible to avoid the sun all of the time, but it is very possible to make better choices when it comes to sun exposure. Avoiding tanning beds, using sunscreen, wearing UV-blocking sunglasses when outdoors, wearing sun-protective clothing, and avoiding sun exposure during the hours of the day when the sun’s rays are strongest are a few of the ways to help protect your skin. Be sure to protect babies and children as well, remembering that skin damage starts with the first sunburn.

Let's all take sunburns seriously, please

I wish it wasn’t the “norm” for people to think that getting burnt to a crisp in the sun is okay, and I wish people wouldn’t think getting a really bad sunburn is just part of getting their summer tan. If you’re one of those who frequently gets sunburned, or even if you only get burned the first time in the sun each summer, remember that you are causing irreversible damage to your skin. A peeling sunburn doesn’t mean you’re on your way to a deep, dark tan. It means that your body is trying to rid itself of damaged skin.

Take good care of your skin; your future self will thank you!

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

More on this topic

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The SkinCancer.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

or create an account to comment.

Community Poll

How well was your skin cancer diagnosis explained to you?