8 Ways Your Body Changes After Just One Sunburn
In the last decade, the incidence of skin cancer jumped 77 percent—and damaging sunburns are a big part of the problem. Here’s how just one sunburn causes lasting damage.
Just one is enough
So you made a mistake, and now you’re lobster-red. Is it really that big of a deal? It is: “A sunburn is an injury to the skin,” says Elizabeth K. Hale, MD, senior vice president at the Skin Cancer Foundation. One blistering sunburn doubles your risk of developing melanoma later in life. Here are 7 skin cancer symptoms you should check for now.
There’s an inflammatory cascade
Damaged cells on the surface of your skin send an SOS to the body—your immune system kicks in, in an effort to repair DNA, says Kenneth Mark, MD, a Manhattan-based cosmetic dermatologist who specializes in the skin-cancer surgery called Mohs Technique. The immune response attracts inflammatory cells to the area, and this inflammation is what will start to quickly make skin uncomfortable or painful. Don’t miss the 10 other weird ways the sun affects your body, besides sunburn.
You won’t see the burn right away
Over time, skin cells pick up more melanin particles (the pigment in skin) as a protective mechanism. To you, this gradual change in pigment—from pink to red to darker red—means you won’t see the full extent of the burn until six to 24 hours after exposure, says Michele Farber, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. Here are 10 things to not do after getting a sunburn.
Your skin tries to ease the burn
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Blood vessels dilate in an effort to bring healthy oxygenated blood to the area, which will cause that tell-tale redness and warmth, says Dr. Farber. Plus, “any state of inflammation brings fluid to the skin,” she says. At the cellular level, there is swelling in between individual skin cells. This can also happen on the surface of the skin, otherwise known as a blister. Already sunburnt? Here’s what dermatologists would do.
Control blistering and peeling
The best defense is a strong offense—wearing SPF 30 (at least)—and reapplying every two hours. If you’re already sunburnt, you can help prevent peeling by taking an NSAID like ibuprofen to quell inflammation and apply a skin-soothing emollient or topical aloe, says Dr. Mark. A cool (not cold) compress can also alleviate discomfort. If you do blister, resist popping it, as it serves as nature’s Band-Aid. From milk baths to tea bag compresses, these home remedies for a sunburn actually work.
You may feel parched
When skin is burned, your body’s protective layer is damaged and doesn’t hold moisture in properly, says Dr. Farber. As electrolyte levels in your body shift in response to this water loss, you may become dehydrated. Drink up. These are the surprising signs of dehydration you should be on the lookout for after spending time in the sun.
Your skin may be changed forever
You know how one bad sunburn can make you more prone to melanoma skin cancer? One reason may be because the burn triggers mutations in certain genes that suppress tumors. What does that mean? “You’re shutting down the body’s innate stop sign, which allows a tumor to proliferate,” says Dr. Hale. This blood test may one day be able to detect cancer before it start.
Winter vacations are worse
People who work or spend most of their lives outdoors are more likely to get a skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma, as opposed to melanoma, says Dr. Hale. On the contrary, people who live in temperate climates that keep covered up or stay indoors for most of the year are more susceptible to melanoma. “Exposing virgin, naive skin to the sun is more likely to cause skin cancer,” she says. These 12 states have to take skin cancer precautions more seriously.
When to call your doctor
Most sunburns can be handled at home with DIY treatments like over-the-counter pain relievers, aloe vera gels, and creams. However, if you experience body-wide symptoms like fever, chills, or nausea, call your doctor, says Dr. Farber. Also, follow these 10 things you should never do after getting a sunburn.
But what if you tan?
Instead of getting a burn, you got away with a tan (phew!)—or maybe that was the plan all along. Don’t celebrate just yet; a tan is a result of “increased melanin production, which prepares the skin against future skin damage,” says Dr. Mark. But—and it’s a big one—it offers only minimal and unreliable protection. Just like a burn, tans aren’t safe, he says. Here are 10 sneaky places you can get skin cancer (that aren’t on your skin).