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Good Question: Do Sunburns Actually ‘Burn’ Our Skin?

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(credit: CBS) Rachel Slavik
Rachel Slavik joined the WCCO team in October of 2010 and is thrill...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Step outside lately and it feels like you’re cooking. Step inside and you’re bound to look a little pink, especially if you skipped the sunscreen.

The feeling is familiar: Hot, stingy red skin. But what’s actually happening when we get a sunburn?

Some call it a small, somewhat painful sacrifice to enjoy a little fun in the sun, but not everyone knows what’s actually going on with their skin.

WCCO turned to dermatologist Dr. Jaime Davis for that answer.

“Sunburn is the body’s healing response to damage caused by ultraviolet light,” said Davis. “Ultraviolet light can penetrate through skin and kill cells.”

When you tan, it’s your body’s natural way of protecting itself.  The darker you are, the tougher it is to burn.

The problem comes when you get too much sun too quickly.  That’s where sunscreen can help.  It’s essentially another layer to block the UV light.

But what do those numbers mean on your bottle of sunscreen?

“Think of it as extra time,” said Davis. “So an 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 would get 50 minutes before getting red with SPF 5.”

That number doesn’t take into account any that washes off, so Davis urges, “Reapply, reapply, reapply.”

Despite the name sunburn, there’s actually no thermal “burn” happening to your skin. It’s not overheating, per se.

“It’s really ultraviolet-induced cell death,” said Davis. A burn essentially says, “Look, I killed off a layer.”

One common myth about sunburns is that people think burns turns into a tan. Dr. Davis said that’s not true. She said your skin begins to tan as soon as you’re in the sun.

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