Before you try to figure out how long your sunburn will last or how to get rid of it, it’s a good idea to find out what’s actually happening to your skin in the first place. We’ve improved leaps and bounds when it comes to recognizing the importance of wearing sunscreen and properly protecting your skin when you’re outdoors over the past few years. But just because you know you should be slathering on the SPF, doesn’t mean you’re actually going to do it (we all know at least one person who still sits out on the beach sans sunscreen despite being hassled about it). And even though you’re more likely to put on sunscreen after experiencing the discomfort of getting burnt, pros advise avoiding that situation altogether. Ahead, NY-based celebrity dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe and dermatologist and founder of DDF Skincare Dr. Howard Sobel break down the facts on what happens to your skin after too much sun.
What are the short-term effects of sunburn?
First, UV damage doesn’t only come from being outdoors. The American Cancer Society explains that UV, which stands for ultraviolet radiation, is a major risk factor for most skin cancers. Sunlight is the main source of UV rays, while tanning beds are another major source (which is why you absolutely need to swap tanning beds for self-tanner if you still haven’t gotten the memo).
You’ll definitely know when you’re sunburnt, but symptoms vary depending on the severity. “Sunburn is the response to UV damage to the skin,” Dr. Sobel tells us. “A little sunburn can cause redness, itching, peeling, and blisters. A severe burn can cause extreme blistering, dizziness, fever, pain, chills, nausea, swelling, and headache.”
Are there long-term effects?
Absolutely. While it’s easy to think you’re in the clear once your skin has peeled and the redness is gone (especially when you’re young), a single sunburn damages the DNA of your skin cells according to Dr. Sobel. “Most people don’t realize how impactful just one sunburn can be when it comes to your overall health and risk of developing skin cancer,” Dr. Bowe says. “If you get one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence, you have more than doubled your chances of developing melanoma later in life.”
According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. Melanoma typically shows up as a new mole or a change in shape, color, size, or feel of an existing mole. When in doubt, see your dermatologist for a skin check, but it’s important to note that Dr. Bowe assures us you can prevent skin cancer in the first place. Regularly applying sunscreen, avoiding sitting out in the sun between the hours of 12:00 PM and 2:00 PM when UV light is strongest, and wearing Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) swimwear when you’re planning to be outside all day will keep your skin protected from UV rays, explains Dr. Bowe.
While skin cancer is certainly the most serious reason to never skimp on the SPF, long-term effects from sunburn also include premature aging. “UV damage accounts for 90% of visible signs of aging like wrinkles,” Dr. Sobel says. Other signs of sun damage include brown spots, with Dr. Sobel noting that “if you have not been protecting your skin, sun damage can start to show up in your 20s.”
If I don’t burn, do I still need sunscreen?
YES. Whether you notice visible signs of sunburn or not, if you’re exposing your skin to the sun without SPF, Dr. Sobel says you’re still damaging the skin cells. “When you sit outside in the sunshine, your skin is exposed to UV radiation from the sun,” Dr. Bowe explains. “SPF stands for sun protection factor, and it measures how long sunscreen will protect you from UVB rays. These are the rays that damage your skin’s outer layers, where the most common forms of skin cancer and premature aging occur.” Then there are UVA rays, which Dr. Bowe says can be just as damaging, but you don’t notice because they don’t leave your skin with a burn.
All of this holds true regardless of skin tone. Dr. Bowe notes that fair skin tones are definitely more at risk of developing skin cancer because darker skin tones produce more melanin, which filters out more UV radiation. However, that’s not to say that you should skip sun protection ever. (For those that avoid sunscreen because it can leave behind a chalky or ashy cast, pick up one of the best sunscreens for women of color.*
It’s also important to realize that even the mildest sunburns are still harming you. “There’s no such thing as a good sunburn,” Dr. Bowe adds as to how the severity of your sunburn affects your skin. “A little burn is damaging to your skin and your health, and a big burn is even more damaging. Even if you don’t burn, your skin is still exposed to these damaging rays, and the effect is cumulative,” she says.
What kind of SPF should I be applying?
With SPF levels ranging from 15 to 100, and formulas varying from traditional lotion to on-the-go spray, and even mousse, it’s a bit overwhelming. But Dr. Sobel and Dr. Bowe both list simple rules for getting adequate protection. “It does not have to be higher than 50,” Dr. Sobel says, explaining: “SPF 15 blocks out 94% of the damaging rays, SPF 30 blocks out 97%, and SPF 45 and 50 block out 98%.” Dr. Bowe is a bit stricter with her rules, telling us that you should opt for an SPF of 50 or 60. “I recommend the higher numbers like Dermalogica’s Dynamic Skin Recovery SPF 50 because people regularly use about half of the amount of sunscreen they should be using,” she says. The amount you should be aiming for is approximately a quarter-sized amount for your face and a ping-pong ball-sized scoop for your body, applied 20 minutes prior to sun exposure, and reapplied every two hours, according to Dr. Sobel.
And don’t forget those smaller areas like your lips, ears, scalp (especially your part), and the tops and balls of the feet. “Everyone is loving face sticks to apply sunscreen because they are so convenient,” Dr. Bowe says, of on-the-go SPFs like Sun Bum’s SPF 30 Face Stick. But you have to remember to apply up to your hairline and on your forehead.” With options like these, you definitely have the resources you need to stay burn-free all summer long — and beyond.