How does sunburn damage the skin?

Sunburn is caused by an overexposure to either sunlight or artificial UV rays. Sunburn doesn’t occur every time the skin is exposed, indeed low- level exposure often causes tanning, a darkening of the skin caused by an increase in levels of melanin, a pigment already present in skin.

Burning is a reddening of the skin caused by groups of blood vessels expanding and breaking as blood rushes to the surface to attempt to heal the burn to living tissue. More severe sunburn can cause blistering of skin and often we see dehydration, dizziness and tiredness displayed alongside damage to the skin.

Skin damage caused by sunburn can sometimes cause non-malignant tumours and skin cancer to occur as the skin’s DNA becomes so damaged it cannot repair itself properly. We can lessen the chances of this by not exposing our skin for long periods of time and using sun creams which give the skin extra protection.

Top 5 sunburn facts

1) Is sunscreen really waterproof?

No sunscreen is truly waterproof. They can be water-resistant but will need to be re-applied every few hours. Even sweat can affect it!

2) Danger times

UV radiation is most intense between 10am to 2pm. In Australia, sunburn can occur in less than 15 minutes on a fine January day. UV radiation is not related to temperature.

3) Peeling 

Peeling is the body’s way of ridding itself of damaged skin cells that might develop into cancers. Damaged skin cells self-destruct and peel off in sheets.

4) How we tan

Skin colour depends on a pigment called melanin which protects your skin by absorbing UV radiation and it darkens when doing so, leaving you with a sun tan.

5) Hidden dangers

On a cloudy day 30 to 50 per cent of the Sun’s UV rays reach your skin, so it’s still possible to burn. You may not feel the Sun’s rays if it’s windy, but they still cause damage.

Discover more amazing science in the latest issue of How It Works magazine. It’s available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, make sure you subscribe today!

Plus take a look at:

Heatwaves explained

How does fake tan work?

Why does my nose tend to get sunburnt more than other parts of my face?