Girl sunbathes on a lounger by the pool

There's A Real Reason Some People Get Sunburns And Others Don't

by Zainab Mudallal and Alexa Mellardo
Originally Published: 

When it’s time to break out the shorts, flip-flops, and swimsuits in order to cool off and soak up the sun, you should always be thinking of your skin. For some people, the aftermath of hitting up the beach or relaxing poolside can unfortunately mean coping with a sunburn. So if you tend to burn in the sun, you may find yourself wondering why some people get sunburns and others don’t. Elite Daily dug deeper into this topic and spoke with experts about how you get sunburns, how to treat your sunburn, and how to potentially prevent skin damage in the first place.

For starters, you’re not only at risk for a sunburn when you’re at the beach. Dr. Manish Shah, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon and anti-aging skin expert in Denver, CO, says, “Things like hiking on a sunny day, going to the beach, and playing sports can expose us to the sun for hours on end. If we are not applying the appropriate level of skin protection via sunscreen with above SPF 30, we are putting our skin in danger.”

Needless to say, it’s important to remember to apply your SPF for all outdoor activities. No matter how great of a time you’re having on a sunny day, dealing with a sunburn when you get home can be really uncomfortable. Your body can feel like it's burning up, your skin will most likely be sensitive to touch and may even peel or blister depending on how severe the burn is.

Sunburn is probably the last thing you want after having fun in the sun. As a matter of fact, you may look at your red skin and ask yourself, “How did I even get this sunburn?” or “Why am I the only one out of my friends who got burned?” In order to find out, Elite Daily reached out to experts for a full explainer about sunburns and the detrimental effects of UV rays, so maybe you can prevent a sunburn from happening again.

How do you get sunburns?

Łukasz Białek, M.D. and member of the Omni Calculator Project — which calculates the amount of time that’s considered safe to be in the sun — tells Elite Daily it’s important to first understand why you tan in order to comprehend why your skin burns after a day spent in the sun. “A suntan is [the] body's natural defense mechanism against damaging ultraviolet sun rays,” says Białek. “In a situation when the defense mechanism is insufficient, a toxic reaction occurs, resulting in sunburn.”

Shah notes you can get a sunburn when you’re exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) light. “UV radiation is a wavelength of sunlight that can be very damaging to the skin,” says Shah. “Ultraviolet A (UVA) is the type of solar radiation that causes photoaging, which is a form of skin damage where your skin’s normal structure is altered. Ultraviolet B (UVB) is associated with sunburn.” To make matters worse, UVB rays can actually burn your skin and contribute to the onset of skin cancer.

When are you most likely to get sunburns?

Białek says you're most likely to get a sunburn when you're in the sun for a long time without taking proper precautions, like using sunscreen. And, according to Shah, you should lather yourself with more sunscreen between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. because that’s when the sun is the strongest.

As far as how long it takes to get a sunburn, there are a few things to take into consideration. Shah says how much sun exposure you’re getting, how sensitive your skin is, and whether or not you’re wearing sunscreen all are factors of a sunburn. “It can be as quick as 15 to 20 minutes for sensitive, unprotected skin to suffer a sunburn while exposed to a clear sky sun. For others, it could take 30 to 45 depending on the pigment of [their] skin,” he says.

Be wary of cloudy days too, as they can be quite deceiving. Shah says you should still wear sunscreen because clouds do not stop UV light from causing skin damage. “The general rule of thumb is to reapply every two hours on a regular day. (This includes cloudy days.) If you are going to be outside sweating or swimming, reapply every 45 to 60 minutes,” he says.

If you tend to lose track of time swimming with your besties in the pool, consider setting a timer on your phone as a reminder to lather up again. Shah recommends using sunscreen that’s at least SPF 30. (And if you tend to burn quickly, SPF 50 to 60.) Anything less than that has the potential to compromise the safety of your skin. He says, “It is [crucial] to note that reapplying your sunscreen is important to account for water or sweat that may dilute the protective formula.”


What is your body’s defense mechanism?

Essentially, when your body senses a lot of sun on your skin, melanin comes to the rescue to protect your cells from damage. Your skin’s shade is actually determined by the dark pigment — otherwise known as melanin — in the outermost layer of your skin. According to Shah, it takes in the UV light and transforms it to heat. When you get too much sun, your melanin production kicks into high gear. Shah says, “Our defense mechanism relies heavily on melanin for protection.”

Why does your skin turn red, and why does it sometimes peel and cause blisters?

UV rays are more powerful than they often feel. Shah explains that when you look red after a day spent in the sun, it’s because your burned skin is inflamed. Your body is also sending blood to the burned area(s) to help with the healing process, which makes your skin feel hot. (Wear sunscreen and a floppy hat, people. There is an awful lot that could happen to your body when you don’t.)

As far as peeling is concerned, Shah says that is your top layer of skin cells that have actually died from the burn and are flaking off. And when it comes to blisters, they’re considered a healing mechanism and form when a lot of cells die.

How come some people tan and don't burn at all?

According to Białek, it really depends on how much melanin there is in your skin. He says, “The Fitzpatrick scale is widely used to assess skin phototypes, which correlates with the risk of sunburn.” If you haven’t heard of the Fitzpatrick scale before, it’s a way to assess your skin type. According to Healthline.com, it can provide you with a basic guide to your skin type, the level of shade you should seek on a sunny day based on your classification, and it can also help you assess your risk for sunburn.

Can people build a tolerance to the sun?

The short answer is… sort of. Shah says, “Over time, if you are exposed to small and consistent doses of UV light, cells called melanocytes can discharge melanin. This will tan your skin. But building up resistance to the sun is not a good strategy for the long term.”

It’s important to keep in mind, though, “While a tan does increase resistance because it is the bodies defense mechanism, it also demonstrates that the skin has already suffered damage from sunlight,” according to Shah. This damage can dry out your skin and cause it to age quickly. It can also result in melanoma, which Shah explains is a form of cancer that begins in your body’s cells that make the pigment of your skin. These cells are known as melanocytes. He adds, “Melanoma can also appear in the intestines, the eyes, and any place in the body with pigmented tissue.”

Is there a foolproof way to speed up the healing process?

When asked about caring for your sunburn, Shah suggests drinking water and taking a cold shower to cool off your skin so it can get the hydration it requires. He also says to help with any discomfort, you can take Advil or Tylenol. According to Shah, it’s important to “consult with your doctor if you have pre-existing conditions that would affect you taking pain relievers.”

Aloe vera is also great for hydrating your skin, as it’s refreshing and comforting for sunburn. “This is what has made it so popular for sunburn patients. However, aloe vera is not the only thing that can help. Keeping your skin cool and hydrated can be achieved with moisturizers and other skin-soothing cooling gels,” Shah says. He recommends Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($11.89, Amazon.com), which works well for all skin types. It moisturizes and protects your skin so it doesn’t continue to dehydrate. Shah says it’s a great option if you blister or peel. Another remedy to have on hand is Avène Thermal Spring Water ($7.99, SkincareMarket.net). It soothes and lessens the heat you feel when your skin is burned. You can also combine it with a moisturizer to decrease how sensitive and uncomfortable your skin may feel.

Shah notes if you’re in an extreme amount of discomfort or you’re badly blistering, “you should visit your [doctor] immediately if after two days of moisturizing, taking cool showers, and adding soothing agents to your routine bring about no improvement. If you are feeling nauseous, dizzy, feverish, or confused along with your burn, go see your doctor.”

To potentially avoid sunburn and damage to your skin, Shah stresses how important it is to use sunscreen before heading outside. Have fun in the sun, but above all, be sure to keep your skin safe.

Additional reporting by Alexa Mellardo.

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