What Really Happens To Your Skin When You Get Sunburnt?

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unnamedIllustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
With Memorial Day behind us and our sights set on summer days spent outdoors, it’s imperative that you know what’s happening to your skin as you expose it to sunlight. I’ve said it time and time again — every should wear a sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30, and limit exposure as much as you can. But, did you know what really happens to your skin when you get a tan? Or, what goes on when you’ve sustained a sunburn? Read on for my advice for hitting the beach this summer.

What Happens When You Get A Tan?
No matter what you tell yourself, there really is no safe or healthy way to tan. Within seconds of the skin feeling direct sun exposure, it responds by producing melanin (also known as a suntan). You might think a tan helps provide a young, healthy glow, but over time it causes just the opposite: photo-aging, changes in skin texture, wrinkling, age spots, saggy jowls, or — worst of all — skin cancer. Don’t kid yourself: There's no such thing as a base or light tan; it’s all damage and it’s all fast-tracking your skin’s aging process. If you must get that glow, reach for body bronzer or self-tanner. There are so many options available now, there’s no excuse!
unnamed-1Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
So, What's The Process?
Following the initial sunburn and redness (which we’ll talk about in a minute), the skin responds by producing melanin, which gives the appearance of a tan. This is a protective function to help prevent UV damage to the DNA of your cells. Think of how dark materials absorb UV light versus light colors that reflect, and now imagine your skin making little pigment umbrellas that sit over the cell nucleus and that’s a tan. It sounds cute, but the process dramatically increases aging. Sun exposure also alerts the body to create more cells, which can cause increased breakout activity; follicles can get plugged and oil production will increase in an attempt to nourish a dehydrated surface.

But, I digress. Did you know there are two different mechanisms involved in a suntan?
unnamed-2Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
The “Cosmetic" (Immediate) Tan
UVA radiation causes oxidative stress, which in turn oxidizes existing melanin and leads to rapid darkening of the pigment. UVA may also cause melanin to be redistributed (released from melanocytes where it is already stored), but, its total quantity in the skin is unchanged. So you get quick, visible skin darkening that's only cosmetic, lasting a few hours or days (depending on your skin color). And, since it doesn't lead an increase in melanin production, there’s little increase in protection against UVB, or against sunburn.
unnamed-3Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
The "Deeper" (Delayed) Tan
In the second process, triggered primarily by UVB rays, there is an increase in melanogenesis, which is the body's reaction to direct photo-damage from UV radiation. This leads to delayed tanning, and first becomes visible about 72 hours after exposure. The tan that's created by all this activity lasts much longer than the one that is caused by oxidation of existing melanin, and is also actually protective against UV skin damage and sunburn, rather than simply cosmetic. However, in order to cause true melanogenesis-tanning by means of UV exposure, some direct DNA photo-damage must be produced first, and this requires UVB exposure (as present in natural sunlight, or sunbeds that produce UVB). So, you’ve accrued some serious aging and damage here, people!

To prevent any of this damage, look for sophisticated sunscreens that are packed with anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, UV smart boosters that release vitamins when sunlight is detected, and age-fighting peptides.

Sunburn
A sunburn is the skin’s response to extreme ultraviolet (UV) exposure and indicates severe damage. In as little as 10 minutes of intense UV exposure, the skin sets into motion a system of defense against this enemy. The face, neck, and trunk are two to four times more sensitive than the limbs.
unnamed-4Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Red means go: The first indication of damage is redness, and is a marker for severe UV damage. A sunburn reaches its maximum redness eight to 12 hours after exposure, and is the body’s inflammatory response in situations requiring repair; it's also a result of dilating blood vessels.
unnamed-5Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Brown means damage: The skin will then start to lose moisture and hydration, which will be apparent with a feeling of tightness. Slowly, skin cells will start to thicken and produce melanin pigment (tanning) in an attempt to stop the UV rays from penetrating through to the deeper layers and damaging the DNA of the cells. When the skin is exposed to high levels of sunlight, this may result in hypo or hyperpigmentation which appears as irregular light or dark patches. The body is excellent at coping with minimal amounts of damage, but if exposure is greater than the body’s ability to repair and mop up, more serious consequences may result. If DNA is damaged and its repair mechanisms are inhibited, skin cancer may occur.
unnamed-6Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Skin Peeling = Cell Suicide
Peeling after a sunburn is your body’s way of getting rid of the damaged cells that are at risk of “losing control” and becoming cancerous. Due to this danger, all damaged cells are instructed to commit suicide by repair mechanisms within these cells. This mass suicide of cells results in whole layers of damaged skin peeling off, to be replaced by other cells underneath those layers.
unnamed-7Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
What Should You Do?
First of all, you should take care of the cause of your problem: Get out of the sun immediately. Drink plenty of water, as you may be dehydrated. If skin is severely blistered, seek help from a medical practitioner. Otherwise, it is important to take down the inflammation and try to reduce damage to the deeper layers of your skin. Take a cool bath (no products added) and then blot skin dry.

Avoid greasy, fatty creams that prevent the skin from cooling and may make the situation worse. Instead, generously apply a soothing after-sun gel or balm to red areas and then stay out of the sun and the heat. Look for ingredients such as clove, licorice, lavender, cucumber and yucca to reduce irritation, pain and redness. Also look for an incredible ingredient called Japanese alder, which accelerates the repair of UV-induced DNA damage. Couple this with ingredients such as algae and hyaluronic acid to rehydrate the skin and you should be well on your way to calmer, less sensitized skin.

Stay out of the sun! Skin is still trying to heal and so must be kept out of direct sunlight — even with SPF — for a good few days. Keep in mind, the skin is a great record keeper and even with a great after-sun product, irreparable damage may have occurred in the form of premature aging or skin cancer that may only reveal itself later.

NEXT: How To Get Rid Of Hyperpigmentation — For Good

As Dermalogica's in-house skin care guru (oh, and their Director of Global Education), Annet King is an invaluable trove of beauty know-how. Luckily, she's letting us pick her brain on everything from hyperpigmentation to the best supplements for your visage. Prepare to get schooled.