Good Question: What Exactly Is A Sunburn?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — After a cold winter, Minnesotans love soaking up the sun, at least, until the sunburn sets in. The pain, the swelling, the peeling — the price we pay for a summer glow.

But what exactly is sunburn? Is our skin actually burning?

“Sunburn is our body’s healing response to damage caused by ultra-violet light. Ultra-violet light can penetrate through skin and kill,” said Dr. Jamie Davis, a dermatologist at Uptown Dermatology.

When we go out into the sun, our skin automatically begins to tan. That tan becomes your body’s natural defense to UV rays, the darker the skin, the more protection from ultra violet light. When we get too much sun, the skin cells can’t protect us and we burn.

“Ultra-violet B rays get down to the layer of active cells. If we get too much, too fast, the melanocytes can’t tan quick enough to block that,” Davis said.

Davis said the word sunburn really doesn’t describe the actually process.

“It’s not technically a burn. Ultra-violet light is getting in there and killing cells like a chemical would or a thermal burn,” she said.

One of the best ways to protect yourself against sunburn is sunblock. It acts as another layer of protection.

“If you put on sunscreen, a hat, or shirt your limiting your dose of ultra violet radiation. You’re not getting as much, as fast, and likely won’t kill cells giving skin time to produce natural defense,” she said.

Sunblocks with a higher SPF, in theory, give you more time before the burn sets in.

“SPF 5 gives you five times the amount of time to burn. So, if I went out and I knew I was going to get red in 10 minutes, I get 50 minutes,” Davis said.

Many people think their burn turns into a tan. But Davis said that’s incorrect. She said your skin begins to tan as soon as you’re in the sun. So if you wear sunscreen, you can avoid the burn, still get tan and cut your risk of skin cancer.

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