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Health Resource: Sunburn and Skin Cancer

Sunburns are inflammation and damage to the skin caused by UV exposure. An individual’s skin type will determine how much sun the skin can handle before a burn begins to form. While any skin type is susceptible to burns, individuals with fair skin and those who live in cooler temperatures are generally more at risk. UV rays are most intense during the middle of the day between 10AM and 3PM, during the summer and if you live closer to the equator. Mild cases of sunburn will typically heal on its own or with the help of topical ointments. More severe cases can lead to permanent skin damage or even skin cancer. Prevention is key to stopping UV rays from penetrating the skin can causing long-lasting affliction.

Sunburn and Skin Cancer

Sunlight in moderation can be a healthy source of Vitamin D and can aid in the improvement of acne. Overexposure to sunlight can have the same effects as superficial thermal burns and puts the individual at risk for two types of skin cancer: Squamous cell carcinoma and basal-cell carcinoma. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 26,000 women and 33,000 men are diagnosed with melanoma each year. Nearly 7,770 of these cases become fatal. Wearing topically-applied sunscreen and proper attire can prevent damage caused by sunburn and help prevent skin cancer.

Other Risk Factors

The correlation between melanoma and sunburn is due to UV radiation. UV radiation varies by latitude and with higher latitudes, the lower the UV ray intensity. Sunburn can also be caused by pharmaceutical products, such as some oral contraceptives, antibiotics and tranquillizers, which can cause sensitivity in some skin types. Individuals with light skin and freckles are also at a greater risk. Ozone depletion worldwide, especially in the southern hemisphere, has led to high levels of UV radiation. Changes in the ozone layer have been thought to increase skin cancer cases.


Minor cases of sunburn can lead to tenderness of the affected area and slight redness. Itching, peeling skin, edema, nausea, rash, blistering and fever can be seen in more severe cases. Extreme sunburns may require hospitalization in some individuals. Varying degrees of pain will depend on the type of sunburn: first or second degree. Sunburns can start in as little as 15 minutes while the symptoms may take 2 to 6 hours to appear. Burns generally continue to develop for up to 72 hours after the initial burn occurs. Post-sunburn symptoms may continue for weeks thereafter. Individuals who develop asymmetrical, growing or color-changing skin lesions should consult with a dermatologist.


Individuals can reduce their risk of getting a sunburn or skin cancer by reducing their UV radiation exposure. Sunscreen with an SPF of 10 will block up to 90 percent of UV rays while an SPF of 20 will block up to 95 percent of rays. Application of sunscreen should begin 15 to 30 minutes prior to going outdoors. A second application should be used 15 to 30 minutes after the initial exposure. Proper attire, including hats and sunglasses, should be worn to block UV light. Protecting the eyes is especially important as clusters of melanin are found within the iris. Certain foods, such as beta-carotene and lycopene found in tomatoes, can increase the skin’s ability to fight off the harmful effects of UV rays.


Further exposure to sunlight should be avoided while trying to heal any variation of sunburn. While certain topical steroids can be used to reduce the pain and swelling of sunburns, such as 1 percent hydrocortisone cream, time is required for proper healing. Most types of sunburns heal completely within several weeks after the initial burn occurs. Home remedies, such as Aloe Vera lotions, wet clothes and frequent baths or showers can help to ease the discomfort of the burn. Pain and swelling of the afflicted area can be reduced with an over-the-counter acetaminophen, anti-inflammatory drug or Aspirin.