How Your Skin Reacts to Sunburn

After a day in the sun, you shouldn’t be surprised if you notice that your shoulders are turning a little red. Even if you use sunscreen, without consistent reapplications, the sun’s rays can penetrate that protective layer and burn the skin. But what exactly is sunburn, and how does it affect your skin?

In this article, we’ll explore the subject of sunburn, taking a closer look at what causes it and how it affects your skin. We’ll also delve deeper into the process of how your skin burns and what you can do to speed the healing process.

What is Sunburn?

Nothing feels better than the warm glow of natural sunlight on your skin – especially after a long day spent indoors or a period of rainy weather. What many people fail to realize is that the pleasant heat you feel on your skin is actually the early stages of sunburn. It’s not actually the heat of the sun that burns the skin, but heat can be a symptom.

Sunburn occurs when ultraviolet radiation reaches the skin, damaging the skin cells and literally altering their DNA. Both UVA and UVB rays comes from natural sunlight, but UVB light can also be produced artificially, such as through dangerous tanning beds. Prolonged or repeated exposure to UV radiation causes sunburn but also increases your risk for other skin problem such as dark spots, wrinkles, and skin cancer.

Some of the most common signs and symptoms of sunburn include:

  • Pinkness or redness of the skin
  • Skin feeling warm or hot to the touch
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Itching or irritation
  • Swelling
  • Small, fluid-filled blisters
  • Headache or fever
  • Nausea and/or fatigue

You can develop sunburn on any exposed part of the body – even your earlobes, lips, and scalp can get sunburned. Covered areas of skin can burn as well, particularly if the clothing you’re wearing has a loose weave that can be penetrated by UV light. In many cases, physical symptoms such as redness and heat develop over the course of several hours after the burn has started with peak redness happening between 12 and 24 hours after exposure.

Understanding What Happens to Your Skin

Now that you have a better understanding of what sunburn is and what causes it, you may be wondering how it actually affects your skin. As the name suggests, sunburn is, in fact, a radiation burn, and it can range in severity. Like other burns, sunburn can be first-degree or second-degree. There is also an acute form of sunburn, which is a delayed, inflammatory response seen in normal skin after exposure to UV rays from natural sunlight or artificial sources.

Here’s a breakdown of what happens to your skin when you get sunburn:

  • The sun produces three types of ultraviolet (UV) rays – UVA, UVB, and UVC.
  • UVC is largely absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere, but UVA and UVB rays can reach the ground and penetrate your unprotected skin.
  • UVB rays are able to penetrate only the epidermis, the upper layer of skin – UVA rays go deeper.
  • Photons (light-transmitting particles) from UVA rays interact with skin cells, damaging their proteins and membranes as well as their DNA.
  • Photons from UVB rays are absorbed directly by the DNA, which can interrupt DNA replication and cause errors which cause the cell to self-destruct.
  • When keratinocytes (cells in the top layer of skin) detect this DNA damage, they call in a flood of immune cells which causes the blood vessels to leak into the spaces between cells – this is what triggers the redness and swelling associated with sunburn.
  • This invasion of immune cells increases about an hour after you go inside, peaking 24 to 48 hours after exposure and developing over the course of the next few days.
  • Some immune cells start to clear out the self-destructed cells, triggering an allergic reaction that causes the skin to become itchy.
  • In severe cases of sunburn, whole layers of keratinocytes may be killed off, causing blisters to form as the dead layer of skin lifts from the layer beneath, allowing the space between to fill with fluid.

Understanding what happens to your skin during sunburn is important, but you also need to know how to treat it. Once your skin cells have been damaged, they may not be able to fully recover.

The best way to avoid sun damage is to protect your skin with these simple steps:

  1. Always choose a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher and is water-resistant
  2. Wear your broad-spectrum sunscreen every time you go outside
  3. Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before sun exposure
  4. Seek shade as much as possible when outdoors and wear protective clothing
  5. Wear protective eyewear in addition to clothing to protect your eyes, such as a wide-brimmed hat

Taking these steps will greatly reduce your risk for sunburn, but accidents do happen from time to time. Keep reading to learn how to soothe and repair your skin following sunburn.

After-Sun Products to Soothe Your Skin

Sunburn tends to heal on its own, but the right skincare products can soothe your irritated skin in the meantime and speed the healing process. After-sun products hydrate your damaged skin, helping to restore the skin’s natural moisture barrier and relieving redness and inflammation. You should also stock up on sun protection products to protect your skin against future burns.

Here are some of Yon-Ka Paris’ best after-sun products:

  • Lait Apres-Soleil – A comforting after-sun application for the face and body, this treatment features hydrating ingredients like cucumber extract and milk protein with a complex blend of soothing botanical ingredients like chamomile, allantoin, cornflower, St. John’s wort, calendula, and linden extracts.
  • Sensitive Masque – A calming mask for red, irritated, and inflamed skin, this after-sun treatment is rich in soothing botanicals like arnica, yarrow, and German chamomile. It also features anti-redness botanicals like horse chestnut extract and witch hazel.
  • Lotion Yon-Ka PS – Designed for dry and sensitive skin, Yon-Ka’s iconic lotion spray hydrates and soothes the skin in preparation for your daily beauty routine. It is rich in quintessence to treat and heal the skin. It also contains plant glycerin for penetrating hydration.

Prevention is the best medicine for sunburn, but even if you do your best to protect your skin, you may experience the occasional sunburn. The key is to choose the right after-sun product for your skin type to soothe irritation and restore hydration, helping your skin heal as quickly as possible.

Brianna Cunningham
Brianna Cunningham

Brianna is a writer and blogger living in Austin, Texas. When she isn't working, she enjoys running, watching beauty/skincare videos on YouTube and taking her dog to the park.

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