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Bright red, tender skin is often the mark of a summer day spent outdoors. But sunburn is not a healthy glow. It’s a sign of skin damage that can lead to premature aging and skin cancer. Even if you “tan, don’t burn,” you’re inviting trouble, says David Leffell, MD.

“Any amount of unprotected sun exposure is damaging to your skin,” says Lefell, professor of dermatology and surgery at the Yale School of Medicine and author of Total Skin. “Even a tan is a sign that your skin has been injured by ultraviolet (UV) rays.”

Over time, sun exposure can cause a range of skin damage, from age spots and wrinkles to skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma and melanoma. “I tell people that if they’re not worried about cancer, they should at least protect their skin for vanity’s sake,” Leffell says.

But it is possible to enjoy the summer -- and even the summer sun -- without burning. By learning a bit about how sun damage happens and taking a few simple precautions, you can enjoy a summer free of sunburn.

How Sunburn Happens

Your body’s protective pigment, called melanin, can only protect your skin from the sun for a certain amount of time before your skin begins to burn. The more melanin in your skin, the more protection you have.

“Those with very light skin, hair, and eyes may burn in as little as 5 minutes, while someone with very dark skin may be able to stay in the sun for a few hours without burning,” says Arielle Kauvar, MD. Kauvar is the director of New York Laser and Skin Care in New York City and clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine.

Choosing and Applying Sunscreen

The most important way to protect your skin from sun damage is to wear sunscreen on all exposed areas of your body. That’s important year-round, not just in summer.

Kauvar recommends applying a separate sunscreen, even if your makeup or moisturizer has sunscreen in it, especially during summer months.

Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind when buying sunscreen:

  • Look for a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.
  • Choose a sunscreen that is water resistant. You’ll still need to reapply it after being in the water, but a water resistant sunscreen should maintain its SPF level at least 40 minutes after exposure to water.
  • Look for a sunscreen that offers protection from UVA and UVB rays. These sunscreens are labeled “broad-spectrum.” Ingredients to look for include ecamsule, oxybenzone, and avobenzone. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide will do the trick too, and may be a good choice for people with sensitive skin.
  • Choose a sunscreen that you like. That will help you remember to use it. Sunscreens are now available in creams, sprays, lotions, and foams, so there are plenty of options to choose from.

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