Sunburn and skin cancer go hand in hand. Red, painful skin that's hot to the touch isn't only unsightly and uncomfortable—it's also a risk factor for basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma later in life. This is why it's important to minimize your risk of sunburn by practicing sun safety and seeing your Dermatologist for annual skin exams.

Here's everything you need to know about sunburn and skin cancer.

What Is a Sunburn?

Anyone, no matter their skin color or skin type, can get a sunburn. Those with fairer skin have a higher risk of sunburn due to their lack of melanin (the pigment that gives skin and hair its color), but people with dark skin aren't immune to sunburn or sun damage. When your skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, it produces melanin to protect itself. That extra melanin results in a tan. But when there's too much UV radiation, it can burn the skin.

And yes, you can still burn on a cloudy day.

Risk Factors for Sunburn

Aside from having fair skin, a few other factors can increase your risk of sunburn, including:

  • Swimming
  • Working outdoors
  • Living or vacationing in a sunny location or at a high altitude
  • Taking medications that cause photosensitivity
  • Mixing outdoor recreation and alcohol
  • Having a history of sunburn

sunburned skin. sunburn skin. sun burn skin. closeup. The concept of sunburn. burnt skin in the sun. close-up. Damaged skins.

Signs of Sunburn

Sunburn can cause the following symptoms:

  • Redness
  • Warm, tender skin
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Peeling
  • Blistering
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

How Does Sunburn Affect Skin Health?

In addition to being uncomfortable, sunburn damages your skin health in many ways. Over time, sun exposure can hasten skin aging, known as photoaging. You may notice your skin loses its elasticity, feels drier, or shows more fine lines and dark spots. Sun exposure can also harm your eyes and burn the retina, lens, and cornea.

How Are Sunburn and Skin Cancer Connected?

Studies show that a history of severe sunburn puts you at a higher risk of developing melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, getting a sunburn five or more times doubles your chances of getting melanoma. And an estimated 200,340 people in the US will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2024.

How Do You Treat Sunburn?

While preventing sunburn is the goal, almost everyone gets one at some point. The Skin Cancer Foundation suggests these methods to soothe your symptoms and support healing so you can recover quickly.

Keep It Cool

If you have access to a body of water, such as a pool or lake, take a quick dip to cool your skin. Then, cover up right away and get out of the sun. You can also apply a cool compress to your skin or take a cool shower. Avoid harsh soaps, and never scrub or rub at your skin.


Sunburns dehydrate your skin. Offset dryness and any peeling by applying a gentle moisturizer to slightly damp skin. Avoid oil- or petroleum-based products, which can trap heat.

Reduce Discomfort and Inflammation

If approved by your doctor, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen can help reduce pain and inflammation associated with severe sunburn. You can also use aloe vera or over-the-counter cortisone cream to soothe your symptoms.

Cover Up

Protect your skin by wearing loose, breathable, long-sleeved clothing made with soft fabrics. Avoid sun exposure as much as possible while recovering from a sunburn.

Stay Hydrated

Sipping water and beverages with electrolytes consistently throughout the day will help keep your body and skin hydrated and support the healing process.

Consult a Professional

If you have large blisters or experience vomiting, fever, or chills, seek medical attention immediately to rule out sun poisoning or heatstroke.

How to Prevent Skin Cancer after a Bad Sunburn

The best way to minimize your risk of skin cancer is to prevent sunburn from occurring in the first place. So, while you can't reverse existing sun damage, you can use your latest sunburn as a teaching moment to increase your defenses in the future.

Make preventive measures a habit. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher every day. Check your skin regularly at home for any new or changing spots, and see your Derm once a year for an exam. Wear sun-protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses, and minimize direct sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when UV rays are strongest.

And of course, say no to tanning beds.

Making Skin Health a Priority

Sunburns happen to everyone, but you should still take them seriously. A little everyday sun protection can go a long way toward supporting your long-term health. So, stock up on a tried-and-true sunscreen, and follow sun care best practices in your daily routine. You—and your skin—won't regret it.


  • Audrey Noble

    Audrey Noble is a New York City-based reporter specializing in features, celebrity profiles, and beauty topics. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Harper's BAZAAR, Allure, Vanity Fair, Refinery29, and more. She is a University of Southern California alumna with bachelor's degrees in print journalism and creative writing.

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