A sunburn is not the same as when you burn your skin on something hot.
“When we think of a burn, we think of heat. But it’s not the sun’s heat that burns our skin,” says Saira George, M.D., an MD Anderson Cancer Center dermatologist.
That’s why you can still get sunburned when the weather is cold.
“Sunburns are from ultraviolet radiation – or UV rays – causing damage to the skin,” George says.
How your skin changes during a sunburn
When ultraviolet radiation from the sun reaches the skin, it damages the skin cells and causes mutations in their DNA.
“Our bodies have a lot of amazing mechanisms to prevent and even correct these mutations,” George says. “But if the skin cells get more UV exposure than they can handle, the damage may be beyond repair, and the cells die off. Blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow and bring immune cells to the skin to help clean up the mess. All this causes the redness, swelling and inflammation we associate with a sunburn.”
The sunburn will eventually heal, but some of the surviving cells will have mutations that escape repair. These cells could eventually become cancerous.
Can you reverse sun damage?
Some beauty products claim they can reverse sun damage or even stimulate cell repair. But no research has shown that any topical skin care product or lotion can reverse sun damage.
“There’s no simple way to undo sun damage yet,” George says. “But there are lots of simple ways to prevent it by being sun-safe and avoiding sunburns.”
There’s no simple way to undo sun damage yet. But there are lots of simple ways to prevent it by being sun-safe and avoiding sunburns.
Follow these sun safety tips
Follow these tips to protect your skin from the sun and lower your cancer risk.
- Be sure to choose a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher, is water-resistant and offers broad-spectrum protection.
- Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going in the sun.
- When possible, seek shade.
- Cover up with hats, sunglasses and UV-protective clothing.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 888-774-3020.