Sunburns and skin cancer go hand in hand. That red, painful patch of skin that's hot to the touch may be a precursor to basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma later in life.

It's extremely important to understand how cancer and sunburn are connected, and what you can do to minimize the risk of getting skin cancer as much as possible. Here's everything you need to know about sunburns and skin cancer.

What Is Sunburn?

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sunburn is inflammation on the skin's outermost layers that is caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This can result in redness, swelling, peeling, and sometimes painful patches that can range from mild to blistering.

Sunburn can happen to anyone. Those with fairer skin have a higher risk of developing sunburn due to their lack of melanin (the pigment on the skin's outer layer that gives its color). When your skin is exposed to 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 cause the skin to burn.

Other things that make you more prone to sunburn include swimming, working outdoors, being at a high altitude, taking medications that cause photosensitivity, and drinking alcohol. And yes, you can still burn on a cloudy day.

Why Is Sunburn a Bad Thing?

Sunburn damages your skin—and health—in many ways. According to the Mayo Clinic, UV light can hasten skin aging. You may notice that 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. Most importantly, studies show that a history of severe sunburn puts you at a higher risk of developing melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer.

How Do You Treat Sunburn?

The Skin Cancer Foundation suggests five ways to treat sunburn:

  • Cool it down: You can take a quick dip to cool down your skin if you're near the water. Then, you'll want to get out of the sun and use a cold compress or take a cool shower.

  • Moisturize: You'll want to offset any peeling with a gentle moisturizer. Be sure not to use anything oil- or petroleum-based, which might trap heat.

  • Reduce inflammation: If your doctor recommends it, you may choose to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen to help with the pain and inflammation of a severe sunburn. You can also use aloe vera or over-the-counter cortisone cream to calm the burn.

  • Stay hydrated: Drinking water and beverages with electrolytes will keep your body and skin hydrated and help the healing process.

  • See a doctor: If you have an extreme sunburn with blisters, vomiting, or fever and chills, seek medical attention immediately. You may have sun poisoning or heatstroke.

How Do You Prevent Sunburn?

All considered, preventing sunburn from occurring in the first place is the goal. Sunscreen, particularly with at least SPF 30 and broad-spectrum protection, is your best defense against UVA and UVB rays. Wear a daily sunscreen and sun-protective clothing, and avoid unnecessary skin cancer risks like tanning beds. You may also want to avoid direct sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the UV rays are strongest.

Sunburns happen to everyone, but you should still take them seriously. A little everyday sun protection can go a long way toward protecting your long-term health.


  • 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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