Sunburns (Sun Protection)

Interview between:

  • Andrew Cunningham, MD

  • Jade Schechter, MD

A sunburn is the damage to the skin that’s caused by overexposure to the sun and/or ultraviolet (UV) light. Sunburns are inflammatory reactions that make the skin turn red, painful, and feel warm when you touch them.

Cases Per Year (US)

Cases per Year (US): Each year, about 33,000 sunburns that require emergency room visits are reported, according to the CDC.

General Frequency

General Frequency: CDC data shows that as of 2015, 35% of adults and 57% of teenagers reported getting a sunburn.


Risk: This depends on severity, but it can include premature aging and skin cancer.



Why is there more concern about sunburns now than there was in previous generations?

The rate of skin cancer (melanoma) is rising, which constitutes the deadliest form of skin cancer.  

What kind/amount of sun exposure is safe?

The safest exposure appears to be a consistent approach in small amounts; you never want to burn. For most people, 15 minutes is safe. But those with darker skin can tolerate more, while those with the fairest skin may have to aim for less. This is because darker skin tones have more melanin, the pigment that gives your skin its color and protects it from the sun’s rays. If you’re unsure of your tolerance, consider limiting yourself to half the time it takes your skin to turn pink and to doing so no more than 2-3 days/week.  

Are there benefits to sun exposure?

Production of vitamin D is primarily driven by sun exposure, and it isn’t clear that vitamin D supplements are an adequate substitute. Sun exposure can also play a role in mood enhancement, blood pressure reduction, and a possible reduction in autoimmune disease. There is data showing a correlation with sun exposure and a reduction of all cause mortality (meaning death from any cause).

What amount of sun exposure constitutes a sunburn? 

The amount is individual and varies significantly based on skin tone. In addition, latitude, time of day, and time of year affect the intensity of the sun and its ability to cause a burn. 

To have a sense of how much sun exposure you’re getting, you can monitor the UV index. But keep in mind that any amount of sun exposure can cause a burn, and 80% of UV rays can penetrate clouds. 

Do sunburns turn into a tan? Why is burning more dangerous than tanning?

Tanning comes from your skin increasing melanin (color) production to protect itself from burning in response to initial damage to your skin cells. When you burn, damage occurs to your epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) faster than your body can produce melanin for protection. Your body attempts to heal the damage by sending more blood to the area, resulting in a red color and a warm feeling. Even if you have a tan when the sunburn fades, damage has still been done.

Why do some people burn more easily than others?

Underlying skin tone (due to the amount of melanin or pigment in your skin) influences the rate at which you burn, with lighter skin (less melanin) burning faster.




Long-Term Risks





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Andrew Cunningham, MD and Jade Schechter, MD are both members of the Galileo Clinical Team. Connect with one of our physicians about Sunburns or any of the many other conditions we treat.

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