Are you more prone to sunburn? Dermatologists explain key risk factors

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer

A sunburn may seem like a temporary annoyance, but it can cause long-lasting damage to your skin, regardless of skin complexion.

Several factors are involved when looking at who is most prone to sunburn, because people react differently to the sun. Some people feel the sun's effects very rapidly, and others have relatively little effect even with hours of outdoor time.

It all relates back to your skin, which in turn, depends on genetics.

Happy on the beach

(ArtMarie/Getty Images)

"Light-skinned people burn more easily than people with darker skin; consequently, they have a higher risk of developing skin cancer. They are especially more likely to develop melanoma, since they are so much more vulnerable to sunburn," said Ali Hendi, MD, spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation and a dermatologist.

However, everyone is at some risk for skin cancer, regardless of skin color or propensity to burn, according to Hendi.

"Don’t assume you’re safe just because you have a darker skin tone or you don’t burn. If you tan, you’ve sustained skin cell damage," Hendi said.

Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, and Hendi said people who suffer more than five sunburns double their risk for melanoma.

However, there are multiple factors that contribute to your risk of skin cancer, including family and personal history of the disease, having many moles and a history of extensive sun exposure and tanning bed use.

"Individuals with dark skin and hair, who never burn, are less likely to get skin cancer, but studies show that when they do get skin cancer it's often diagnosed at a later stage and more likely to be fatal in the case of melanoma," Hendi said.

So why do people with lighter skin burn more frequently?

"Light-skinned people have less melanin in their skin cells than people with darker skin. Melanin in most people is a dark pigment that provides some sun protection," Hendi said.

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Skin cells respond to damage from the sun's UV rays by producing more melanin to protect themselves from further injury.

"That’s what a tan is: the skin’s attempt to repair sun damage and prevent further injury by increasing skin pigment," Hendi said.

Many people think that getting a base tan provides protection from further sun damage, but that is not true. Any sun exposure that leads to a tan or sunburn is damaging to your skin’s DNA.

According to Hendi, some people, especially redheads, have a type of melanin that offers no protection from the sun, which is why they may burn and not tan. People with darker skin types have a form of melanin called eumelanin that darkens after sun damage, providing some extra sun protection.

"There is a skin type classification system, the Fitzpatrick Skin Type, that classifies six skin phototypes. They range from Type I – people with fair skin, light eyes and hair, who always burn without sun protection – to Type VI, people with dark skin and hair, who never burn," Hendi said.

However, people with all skin types should protect themselves from the sun by wearing sunscreen and protective clothing, including hats.

"Even if people with fair skin ever get enough exposure over time to become less sensitive to sunburn, they’ve done unbelievable damage to their skin to reach that point— they’ve vastly accelerated their skin aging and increased their lifetime chances of every kind of skin cancer by doing all that damage along the way," Hendi said.

skin examination of moles

(miriam-doerr/iStockphoto/Getty Images)

It does go farther than just skin tone. There are many other factors that make people more prone to sunburn, such as where you get your exposure. There are some locations where sun exposure makes people more prone to sunburn than others.

"Depending on altitude and environmental conditions, some geographical locations are worse for sun exposure," Dr. Ranella Hirsh, dermatologist with the Academy of Dermatology, said.

Higher altitudes, for example some places in Colorado, put people at a greater risk for sunburn. Areas where the ozone layer is compromised, such as Australia, and areas near the equator put people at a higher risk.

Dr. Marian McEnvoy, dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said it is important to be aware if any medications you're taking increase the risk of sunburn.

When it comes to sunscreen use, it is best to look for a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher, Hendi said.

Hendi recommends a broad spectrum sunscreen, which means it provides effective protection against both UVA and UVB radiation.

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