Does a sunburn turn into a tan? Good question – the answer is not as straightforward as you’d think. Technically the answer is no. So then why do some people go to bed with a burn and seemingly wake up with a tan? How does that happen?
Rather than asking does a sunburn turn into a tan, maybe the more correct question is will I have a tan after my sunburn fades?
To fully understand the answer, we are going to look at how skin tans, how it burns, the role of UVA and UVB radiation in those processes as well as their effects on different skin types.
UVA vs UVB Rays
UV radiation is a form of electromagnetic energy produced by the sun. There are two types of ultraviolet rays from the sun that reach the earth’s surface—UVA and UVB.
In simplest terms; UVA rays penetrate to the innermost layers of your skin’s epidermis and it’s the UVA rays that tan your skin and create “immediate pigment darkening”, when the darkening intensity is at its maximum immediately after exposure.
It’s the UVB rays that are attributed to sunburn and cause most skin cancers. UVB rays are also responsible for delayed pigment darkening (DPD).
This usually begins two days after the exposure and lasts 10 to 14 days.
Just a few notes: Although UVA is primarily responsible for tanning, and UVB for burning, it’s important to understand that if you spend enough time in the sun, you can also burn from UVA, or get a delayed pigment darkening (i.e. a tan) from UVB. But to achieve either requires a lot more exposure.
It’s also important to note that although UVB rays are considered the more harmful of the two types of UV rays and why SPF in sunscreen is formulated to only block out UVB rays (unless labeled broad-spectrum), UVA can also cause cancer and it damages your skin.
There are many benefits to tanning, but there are also significant well-known risks. Don’t be stupid, be safe!
What is a Sunburn?
UVB rays damage cells in the topmost layer of your skin. Your immune system responds by increasing blood flow to the affected areas, which is why sunburns are red and feel warm to the touch.
At the same time, chemicals released by the damaged skin cells message your brain, which is why you feel pain.
To be clear, every dermatologist, whether they are ultra-anti-sun exposure or only a little anti-sun exposure, agrees that sunburns are much more dangerous than controlled, careful tanning.
What is a tan?
The sun’s UVA rays penetrate the deeper layers of the skin. When your body recognizes damage to your skin cells, it attempts to protect itself by triggering cells called melanocytes, which produce melanin.
Melanin is your body’s defense against Ultraviolet rays and what produces that brownish pigment on your skin (a.k.a. a tan). This pigment is sent to shroud the nucleus of the cell to try and shield it from the harmful rays.
Unfortunately, a base tan is not a very effective sunscreen at only about 3 SPF. However, that’s not zero and does provide some protection for a short period of time.
We talked a bit about delayed pigment darkening from UBV rays, which occurs after your skin starts to burn. It’s also the body’s reaction by creating melanin to protect your body from further burning.
That “healthy glow” is your body’s attempt to shield your skin from further trauma, in other words, a reaction to skin damage from the sun.
Does a Sunburn to Turn Into a Tan?
Again, a sunburn does not “turn into“ a tan. Your body’s response to sunburn from UVB rays triggers an increase in melanin to try and protect itself from the burn.
This delayed pigment darkening usually begins two days after the exposure and lasts 10 to 14 days. The deepening of your tan may happen to coincide with the fading of your sunburn, but it’s NOT a result of it.
Why do some people burn then tan while others just burn?
This process happens differently with different people depending on their skin type. The Fitzpatrick skin type (FST) scale is often used to determine a person’s skin type. The classification estimates the amount of melanin in your skin based on your skin, hair and eye colour. It’s not a fool-proof system, nor is it 100% accurate, but it can give you a general idea of what you can expect your skin to do after sun exposure.
*side note: even people with very dark skin can burn with enough exposure
How to Treat Sunburn
There is no guarantee you’ll be tanned after your burn fades, but here are a few tips to treat sunburn while you’re waiting to find out:
- Take cool baths or showers to help relieve the pain – When toweling off, leave a little water on your skin and apply a moisturizer to help trap the water in your skin. This also helps hydrate your skin.
- Use moisturizer – Put your moisturizer in the fridge to make it even cooler
- Use aloe vera to help soothe sunburned skin – Just read the label. A lot of “cooling” aloe gels contain alcohol, which will not only further dry out your skin but burn, your already irritated skin.
- Take aspirin or ibuprofen to help reduce any swelling, redness and discomfort
- Drink extra water – A sunburn draws fluid to the skin’s surface, away from the rest of the body. Drinking extra water helps prevent dehydration.
- If your skin blisters, allow the blisters to heal – Blistering skin means you have a second-degree sunburn. You should NEVER pop the blisters. Blisters form to help your skin heal and protect you from infection.
- Protect sunburned skin while it heals. Wear clothing that covers your skin when outdoors.
Does a sunburn turn into a tan? No, it doesn’t. Could you have a tan once your burn fades? Possibly – but there are no guarantees, especially if you are fair-skinned. Make sure you always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with high SPF if you are spending time outdoors to avoid getting sunburned in the first place.
Every time you get a sunburn, you increase your risk of skin cancer.