Sunburn and Skin Cancer: Prevention and More

Medically Reviewed By Joan Paul, MD, MPH, DTMH
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A single sunburn can increase your risk of skin cancer. Most skin cancer results from the sun’s UV light, damaging the genetic material in skin cells. The better you protect yourself from sunburn, the higher your chance of preventing skin cancer. You can prevent skin cancer by using UV-protective clothing and broad-spectrum sunscreen. Melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma are the most common skin cancers. 

This article explains how sunburn can increase your risk of skin cancer. It also details the best ways to manage sunburn and prevent it overall.

How can sunburn cause skin cancer? 

Three adults swimming in the ocean on a sunny day
Aleksei Toropov/Stocksy United

Sunburn is painful, inflamed skin resulting from prolonged exposure to the sun. Symptoms of sunburn include:

  • inflamed, painful, or tender skin
  • blistering skin
  • headache, fever, and nausea

Research shows that the more sunburns you experience, the more likely you will develop skin cancer.

Prolonged exposure to the powerful UV rays of the sun, without skin protection, may cause sunburn. The severity of the burn may depend on the following:

  • the length of exposure
  • the strength of the sun
  • your skin tone

The radiation from UV rays can damage the DNA in your skin cells. DNA contains the blueprint for your cells. Over time, the cell’s blueprint can change, causing some cells to become cancerous.

How does the sun change skin?

The sun can affect the skin in various ways. UV radiation from the sun or sunbeds contributes to skin cancer. There are two types of UV light: ultraviolet A (UVA), causing skin aging, and ultraviolet B (UVB), causing skin burning.

Unprotected exposure to these rays can damage the DNA in skin cells, producing mutations causing skin cancer and premature aging.

Sunburn is an inflammatory response to UV rays. Your skin may start to peel after sunburn, a sign your body is trying to rid itself of damaged cells, replacing them with new ones.

You are more likely to develop skin cancer if you have experienced a bad sunburn in your youth.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the epidermis or the first layer of skin. Damage to skin DNA can trigger mutations, leading to malignant tumors forming.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of skin cancer can include the following:

  • changes in your skin, such as color changes
  • new growths on the skin forming
  • sores on the skin are not healing

Most skin cancers result from too much sun exposure.

Visit our hub to learn more about skin cancer.

Types of skin cancer

The three main categories of skin cancer are:

  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC): This is the most common type of skin cancer. It grows slowly and can cause minimal damage if it is caught early. It often occurs from DNA damage due to UV exposure and can look like discolored patches on the skin, colored growths, or open sores.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC): This is the second most common type of skin cancer. Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that form the top layer of the epidermis. When an SCC develops, squamous cells grow at an abnormal, accelerated rate. The lesions are mostly situated on sun-exposed areas.
  • Melanoma: Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer that begins in the melanocyte cells. It is less common than other types of skin cancer but can spread to the organs, making it the most dangerous skin cancer. It is important to catch melanoma early for successful treatment.

Changes in the skin may be a sign of skin cancer. Use the ABCDE rule to help identify skin cancers such as melanoma.

Identifying melanoma

To recognize the signs of melanoma, follow the ABCDE rule:

Asymmetrical: Does the spot or mole have an irregular shape, or do both halves look the same?
Border: Does the mole or spot have an irregular or jagged border?
Color: Is the mole or spot uneven in color?
Diameter: Is the mole growing bigger than a pea?
Evolving: Has the mole or spot changed during the past months or weeks?

Visit our hub to learn more about melanoma.

When should you contact a doctor?

You should contact a doctor if you experience any of the symptoms listed. You should make an appointment if you notice a sudden change in your skin or a wound that won’t heal. 

If you have a sunburn with the following symptoms, please seek medical attention. 

  • severe sunburns covering over 15% of your body
  • dehydration
  • fever and nausea
  • significant pain that doesn’t resolve in 48 hours

Your doctor will be able to provide you with treatment to reduce the effects of your burn. 

How do doctors diagnose skin cancer?

Dermatologists are doctors who specialize in treating skin conditions. If they suspect skin cancer, they may perform a biopsy of the area.

During a biopsy, your doctor will take a sample of your skin tissue to be tested in a lab. The test will determine whether there are cancer cells present.

How do you treat skin cancer?

Treatment options for skin cancer vary depending on the type and severity of the skin cancer.

Generally, doctors treat skin cancer with surgical excision, which removes the cancer and a margin of healthy tissue around it. The excised tissue is then sent to a lab to confirm that all cancer cells have been removed.

Other treatments for skin cancer can include:

Your doctor will create a customized treatment plan to address your specific health status.

Who is at risk for skin cancer?

You are more likely to experience skin cancer if you have any of the following:

  • green or blue eyes
  • blonde or red hair
  • light skin tone
  • skin that usually burns easily
  • a family history of skin cancer
  • frequent sun exposure
  • a large number of moles
  • a history of sunburns

How can you prevent sunburn and skin cancer?

The key to preventing skin cancer lies in preventing future burns. You can prevent skin cancer by implementing the following strategies:

  • Wear UV-protective clothing that covers your arms and legs.
  • Wear a wide-brim hat when outside.
  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen before sun exposure.
  • Avoid indoor tanning.
  • Remain in the shade.

Read more about remedies and prevention methods for sunburn.

Summary

Skin cancer can arise from cumulative sunburns over the years. The UV rays from the sun damage the DNA in your skin cells, which can become cancerous and replicate rapidly. Your dermatologist may diagnose your skin cancer with a full-body skin check and biopsy. Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

You are more likely to develop skin cancer if you have light skin and burn easily. Avoid the sun during the hottest part of the day (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), wear broad-spectrum sunscreen daily, and cover your arms and legs with UV-protective clothing to minimize sunburn. 

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Medical Reviewer: Joan Paul, MD, MPH, DTMH
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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