The science behind sunburn

22 June 2017 by
First published: 3 July 2017

Protect your skin by learning all about the science behind sunburn.

Now that summer has finally arrived, it’s time to get as clued up as possible on sunburn. Burning up in the sun is a painful experience and it can have harmful, long-lasting effects on your skin.

Here are the facts you need to know about sunburn, how it occurs, how to avoid it and how to soothe your skin after spending time in the sun.

The facts

People with fair skin, as we know, are usually more likely to suffer from sunburn, which is why they have to be particularly attentive when applying sun cream. ‘Fair skinned people have less of the dark pigment melanin in their skin, which helps protect against burning,’ says Margaret Weeds, Co-Founder of Odylique. ‘Tanning is in fact the result of stimulating this protective melanin and indicates the skin has suffered a degree of sun damage.’ You may like the idea of returning from your summer holiday with a golden glow, but the effect on your skin isn’t great.

The sun is capable of damaging your skin without you even realising it. Early signs of ageing are often caused as a result of too much time spent soaking up the sun’s rays. ‘Almost all of the signs of ageing are caused by photo damage through ultraviolet exposure,’ says Harley Street dermatologist Dr Adam Friedmann. ‘Ultraviolet damages DNA in keratocytes, which gives rise to red scaly blotches or sunspots. Sometimes they can be brown or pigmented.’

Skin cancer is a terrible thing for anyone to endure, so it’s important to make sure you know how to recognise the signs. ‘Unexplained changes, such as the appearance of hard or scaly lumps or moles that are either tender, itchy or bleed and don’t clear up in about a month should be checked out by your GP who may arrange for a biopsy,’ advises Margaret Weeds. ‘Most are non-malignant, so don’t hesitate to seek reassurance. It’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your health.’


Sunburn is a common problem, but it can easily be avoided if you put some simple precautions in place. The first course of action is to use suncream, of course. ‘In the summer months, it’s essential to always use sun protection,’ says Dr Friedmann. ‘Ensure that you choose one with not only a high SPF, but also at least a 4 star UVA rating  –preferably 5 stars.’ However, it’s essential that you understand the meaning of SPF when buying sun protection products. Margaret explains: ‘The SPF is not an indicator of strength, but of exposure time. Using too sparingly greatly reduces protection, as does not reapplying a non-water resistant sunscreen after towel drying.’ Putting on SPF 50 doesn’t mean that you’re covered all day. You still have to make sure you reapply so that you give your skin the absolute optimum protection that it needs from the sun.   

The clothes you wear, the foods you eat and the body products you use can also reduce your chances of suffering from sunburn. ‘Wear a wide brimmed hat, sunglasses and loose cotton clothing, especially when the sun is high and hottest, says Margaret. ‘Natural antioxidants like vitamin A, C and E present in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables and good antioxidant supplements protect our skin against sun damage from the inside, while antioxidant-rich plant oils like avocado, olive, sea buckthorn, raw shea and sunflower in natural and organic skin and body care give it protection from the outside.’ Every little helps, so don’t forget to pack hot weather essentials like hats and sunglasses when jetting off on your summer holiday!


Unfortunately, many of us will find ourselves burnt after a day out in the sun. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do about. It’s vital to soothe your skin after exposure to the sun, whether you’ve been burnt or not. ‘Due to its high vitamin content (A, B1, B2, B6, B12), Aloe Vera can rejuvenate and reach deep into the skin, helping to heal micro-wounds, including sunburn and acne scars,’ says nutritionist Cassandra Barns. ‘Apply often, especially in the evening, after a day in the sun.’ When you’re recovering from sunburn, it’s best to steer clear from further sun exposure, to help speed up the healing process.

Your skin will heal quickly if taken care of. ‘It takes around four weeks for skin to heal properly,’ Margaret says. ‘Swift action is needed to minimise inflammation, speed up healing and minimise damage to deeper skin tissues.’ Looking after your skin during the summer should be a priority so you can keep your skin healthy and enjoy your time in the sun!