Sunburn and skin cancer

What is sunburn?
Unfortunately too many Australians are familiar with the pain and discomfort of sunburn. Most of us have been sunburnt at least once in our lives, and many people get sunburnt regularly every summer.

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or artificial sources such as a solarium (tanning bed) can cause sunburn. Sunburn occurs when the amount of UV radiation your skin is exposed to is more than its ability to protect itself with melanin – the pigment that gives our skin its colour and acts to absorb UV radiation before it can damage skin cells.

Skin that has been sunburnt turns red within hours – and the sunburn will continue to develop for the next one to three days. Most people who have been sunburnt also peel – which is the body’s way of shedding dead and damaged skin cells and making way for the new skin underneath.

You can’t see or feel UV radiation. It is present every day, can be high even if the temperature feels cool and can pass through light cloud cover.

The amount of time it takes to be sunburnt will depend on your skin type (fair skin will burn faster than dark skin), time of day and time of year (UV levels at the time the exposure occurs) and your environment (cement, sand, water and snow are highly reflective). For example, if you are by the pool you are exposed to direct sunlight from the sky as well as the reflected sunlight from the water.

Unfortunately even though sunburn eventually fades, long term damage to skin cells remains. Even mild sunburn can increase your risk of developing melanoma and the more often you are burnt and the more severe the sunburn is, the higher your risk will be.