If you have been inside all winter and then go sit out in the sun on a particularly nice, bright spring day, it is very likely that if you spend more than around 20 minutes or so you will get sunburned. And even when your skin is accustomed to being out in the sun, over the course of several hours, your exposed skin will turn bright red and become extremely painful when touched. The skin will often feel very warm to hot as well. Did you actually know that there is also permanent damage occurring, beneath the apparent redness that will go away in a few days?


When you get a sunburn, you're basically killing your skin cells. The outer layer of skin on your body is called the epidermis. The outermost cells of the epidermis -- the cells you see and feel on your arm, for example -- are dead. But just below the dead cells is a layer of living cells. These living cells continuously produce new dead cells to replenish your skin. By sitting in the sun, you expose yourself to ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light has the ability to kill cells. Ultraviolet light hits the layer of living cells in the epidermis and starts damaging and killing them.


As your body senses the dead cells, two things happen. First, your immune system comes in to clean up the mess. It increases blood flow in the affected areas, opening up capillary walls so that white blood cells can come in and remove the damaged cells. The increased blood flow is what makes your skin warm and red. Then, the nerve endings for pain begin sending signals to your brain. If you know how aspirin works, you know that damaged cells release chemicals that activate pain receptors. This is why sunburned skin is so sensitive.


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 them. This mass suicide of cells results in whole layers of damaged skin peeling off, to be replaced by other cells underneath those layers.

The best thing to do to avoid having to go through anything like this is to avoid sunburn (without having to stay inside) by always using a quality sunblock, which will effectively block ultraviolet light.