FirstMed: Can a Sunburn Give You Skin Cancer?


We love spending long hours outdoors in the summer: lying on the beach, sightseeing in a new city or hiking in the mountains. While there's a lot of good that comes from the sun and the ultraviolet (UV) radiation it produces, there is still risk of overexposure. FirstMed’s medical specialists share tips on how to protect yourself effectively and avoid negative effects to your skin from overexposure to UV rays.

What does UV exposure do to the skin?

The sun's rays are the major source of exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Intense exposure to UV rays emitted by the sun can damage your eyes and can cause serious damage to your skin, most notably certain cancers. When you expose yourself to sunlight, your body absorbs UV rays and converts them into energy. There are three forms of UV rays: UVA (long-wave), UVB (mid-wave), and UVC (short-wave). Longer wavelength UVB rays cause sunburns, while short wavelength UVC rays can damage the ozone layer that protects us against the harmful effects of longer wavelength UVA and UVB rays.


Your skin absorbs UV radiation every time you're outside without sunscreen or protective clothing. If the exposure is too great, this process can damage the cells in your skin. This can cause premature aging (e.g. wrinkles and age spots) and even skin cancer!

What skin cancer can sunburn cause?

Excessive exposure to sunlight leads to increased risk of cancer later in life. The two most common forms are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma is less common but more serious.

Basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) look like pink or red growths on the skin, while squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) are red scaly patches or bumps that can bleed easily when hurt. Left untreated, these non-melanoma skin cancers can spread deeper layers of your skin or to other parts of your body through lymph nodes or blood vessels.

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. It appears when pigment-producing skin cells, the melanocytes, become cancerous. It has uneven edges and may have scalloped or notched borders, while common moles tend to have smoother, more even edges. A warning sign of a mole is the presence of multiple colors. Benign moles generally appear evenly brown or tan, while melanomas often have different shades of brown, tan, or black. At the time a melanoma has already formed, the only treatment is surgical removal or excision. Unfortunately, melanoma is becoming more common every year.

How to treat sunburn and prevent skin cancer?

To avoid sun damage, stay out of sunny places from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you must be outside during these times, you can protect yourself with clothing, wearing sunglasses and applying sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher that specifies protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Reapply sunscreen every two hours if you stay outside for long periods of time or as needed if you're sweating or swimming in water that isn't protected by a roof (such as the ocean, lake or pool). If you get burned, relieve the symptoms by cooling the sunburned area with a cold compress or cold water, followed by a moisturizing lotion containing aloe vera. These precautions can help reduce your risk of skin damage due to sun exposure.

When should you see a doctor about sun damage?

Early detection is crucial. Check your skin thoroughly every three months, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. Ask a partner or friend to help check areas you can't see, like your back, the back of your ears, and your genital area. True age spots are non-cancerous, but if you detect one that is rapidly changing in size or shape, see a dermatologist. If you spend time in the sun often and have a family history of skin cancer, be screened regularly from the age of 20. It is suggested to have a full-body skin examination with your dermatologist once a year.



The skin is your body’s largest organ and first line of defense. It deserves proper protection! UV light can cause wrinkles, dryness, and other signs of aging, but also can lead to skin cancer if not treated in time. You should protect your skin from the sun because it could cause damage that lasts for years after your tan fades away. Follow our tips to have a safe and fun summer.

If you have any questions or experience any of the symptoms detailed above, do not hesitate to contact our medical specialists.