This Is What Happens to Your Body When You Get Sunburnt

Sun damage is something to be aware of year-round, not just in summer. While you might love spending time outdoors in the sunshine, it is important to be aware of the negative effects of the sun, including sunburn, and take appropriate measures to limit your exposure to UV rays.

Time spent outdoors in natural light is an important factor in maintaining our overall health. Why? Well, exposure to sunlight helps support our health in a few different ways:

  • it helps to improve sleep as it regulates our circadian rhythm and our body's production of melatonin (aka the sleep hormone) at night
  • it is the most effective way to get vitamin D, which is essential to healthy bones as it regulates calcium and phosphate absorption and metabolism
  • it boosts our mood, since sunlight has been shown to boost our body's level of serotonin (aka the happy hormone)
  • and some research has found that exposure to sunlight may even help to reduce high blood pressure 

While exposure to sunlight is important, it does come with a significant risk of sunburn and a whole host of other health issues, such as dehydration, headache, fatigue, and in some cases dizziness, chills, fever. Then there are the more severe consequences of sunburn, such as electrolyte imbalances, infection, serious burns and even shock.

When seeking time in the sun, wherever you are and however prone your skin is to sunburn, it's crucial to be sun smart. To find out exactly what happens to our body when we get sunburnt, we spoke to Sydney-based family doctor, Sam Saling.

"The most effective way to get vitamin D is from sunlight," Dr Sam explains. "Ten minutes of sun exposure is enough to maintain adequate levels, but it's important to be mindful about the time you spend in the sun in order to avoid sunburn and other health issues than can come from sun exposure."

Keep reading to find out exactly what happens to your body when you get sunburnt.

What is sunburn exactly?

Dr Sam: Sunburn is skin that undergoes reddening and irritation in response to prolonged exposure to sunlight," Dr Sam explains. This occurs several hours after sun exposure. 

Why does sunburnt skin peel?

Dr Sam: Peeling after sunburn indicates the skin is trying to get rid of damaged skin cells. The skin self-exfoliates, leading the way for new healthy skin cells to appear. 

What happens to the new layers of skin underneath the skin that peels?

Dr Sam: The new skin layer regenerates as normal. Sometimes after sunburn, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can occur in damaged skin that remains, which means the affected skin becomes a slightly darker shade due to the healing process.

Apart from damaging the skin, what else does sunburn do to the body?

Dr Sam: The main effect of sunburn that can greatly affect the rest of the body is dehydration. Sunburnt skin loses a lot of moisture, so if a large surface area is affected, you can experience significant dehydration.

Dehydration manifests most significantly between 12 and 24 hours after sunburn, and you may notice not only dry and red skin, but a headache, fatigue, and even more severe symptoms like dizziness, chills, and fever.

Other more severe consequences of sunburn on the body includes electrolyte imbalances, overlying infection, second-degree burns, and even shock! Make sure to see your doctor if you experience anything more than just skin redness after a sunburn.

If skin doesn't go red and just tans, does that mean it's not getting as much sun damage?

Dr Sam: Melanin is a pigment in the skin that absorbs ultraviolet radiation, and limits its effect on skin tissue. The darker your skin, the more melanin you are able to produce. So the lighter your skin, the higher your risk of skin damage from sun exposure. Suntanning is a protective mechanism of the skin to avoid further injury from ultraviolet light. Tanning may look great, but it actually shows damage to genetic material in the outermost layer of your skin. There is no such thing as a healthy sun tan.

Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.

For more from Dr Sam, follow her at @drsamsaling.

Enjoyed this? These Are the Only 3 Things You Really Need to Do to Stay Healthy.

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