Girl on the beach applying sunscreen and wondering about the difference between a tan and a sunburn

What is the difference between a tan and a sunburn?

When the weather is warm, it’s only natural to want to get out there and enjoy it. But outside, there’s the sun. And in proper doses, it’s really good for you. It helps your body make more vitamin D. But even in small doses, your time in the sun should be protected, because you know, skin cancer and stuff.

Don’t forget that our skin is an organ. It’s a fascinating one too because it’s the largest one and it covers all our other organs. It’s the only one that is exposed to the outer world while the rest of the organs stay tucked away inside us. That means that skin has a greater chance of damage from the environment.

Among the kinds of damages you can get with your skin are sunburns and suntans. Many people think they’re basically the same thing though. Aren’t they? Well, not quite. There are differences between them, such as most people WANT a suntan but really no one wants to turn the shade of cooked lobster.

So, what is the difference between a suntan and a sunburn?

 The difference between a suntan and a sunburn is that while a suntan can be beneficial for mood improvement and vitamin D production, excessive exposure to UV light on unprotected skin can lead to a sunburn. This radiation burn, if repeated, could damage your DNA, thus, increasing the risk of skin cancer.

And the differences go on from there, and they’re very important to know. So keep reading and you’ll soon know all the details and how to protect your skin!

The difference between a suntan and a sunburn

Aside from the fact that one of them leaves you with a desirable golden and bronzed color and the other ones leave you looking like a radiation experiment gone awry, there are differences between a suntan and a sunburn that you can’t see with the naked eye.

For starters, tanning happens when the melanocytes, special cells inside your skin, create melanin, a brown pigment, once they are exposed to sunlight. This is a good process that you want your skin to do. See, that pigment helps protect your skin from some of the damaging sun rays. Of course, that’s no excuse to go out in the sun without protection.

If you do go outside without broad-spectrum sun protection in place like La Roche-Posay’s Sun lotion with SPF 60 (Amazon link) (which is free from oils, fragrances, parabens and suitable for all skin types), or you don’t reapply it while you’re outside, you’ll likely wind up with a sunburn. The redness and soreness that you get from a sunburn happen because the top layers of your skin have been irreparably damaged.

There’s a legend out there that if you get a sunburn, it will fade into a brown tan later. This is NOT true so if someone has told you this, please don’t listen. And it might be wise to tune out any of their other advice as well. Once you burn your skin, it stays that way. You’re damaging your skin and later on, the only way it will appear with that browned tan color is when your damaged cells on the outside peel away and show your new skin underneath.

Maybe you’re wise enough not to fall for that, but there are some people who think they can’t burn. You might be one of them too if you tan easily. Sometimes, you don’t need to be lobster-red to have a sunburn. The brown color of your tan can easily mask the redness of your burn. If you experience peeling after you’ve been out in the sun, even if you didn’t get that telltale red hue, you have burned.

Let’s go back to our friends, the melanocytes, busy making melanin. When you get under the sun, those melanocytes start making melanin to absorb the UV rays. That’s what makes it brown, or tan. But it’s not always that simple. Some people produce melanin more often while for others, it takes longer. This explains why you might turn up with a gorgeous tan after an hour by the pool but your best friend might not have that good fortune.

The pituitary gland stimulates melanocytes with MSH or melanocyte-stimulating hormone. So, when you’re out in the sun, the MSH will enter your blood and travel to the melanocytes which then gets them to produce the melanin. The more MSH stimulation your body gives off, the darker your skin will be.

Fun fact: the pituitary gland is joined to your optic nerves. So, whenever your eyes see sunlight, that gland automatically sends a message out and MSH goes on its way to the melanocytes. Science is definitely cool!

Now, the dark side. When you expose yourself to sunlight too often or in the extreme sense, your skin cells are killed off. Your body responds to this promptly by sending more blood through your capillaries to those areas that incurred damage. That’s why you get redness, maybe even some blisters too, and pain. It’s the reason why if you push on your sunburned skin, the area turns pale and then floods back with redness once you remove your hand.

Suntans and sunburns are both bad for the skin though because both put you at risk of skin cancer. Healthy tanning in the sun doesn’t exist. And while going out in the sun is good for you in controlled doses, with plenty of breaks thrown in for good measure, protecting yourself is essential so that you don’t have any skin problems.

What makes a suntan different from a sunburn?

Now we’re going to dig a bit further into the finer differences between suntans and sunburns. Keep reading to understand the key differences so you can protect yourself!

– The amount of time you were exposed to radiation

When you get a sunburn, it’s basically burnt living tissue that is living in your skin. This tissue has been exposed to those dangerous UV rays for a longer period. This can also happen from artificial heat sources like tanning beds or even from welding machines. Sunburns are a reaction from your skin to DNA damage.

But when you have a suntan, it’s the reaction of your skin to overexposure to the sun and the release of melanin to protect from skin cancer. If you head to the East, many cultures there don’t embrace the sunbathing culture we have. In fact, much of their beauty products contain ingredients that whiten and brighten skin for they find this to be a healthier trait.

They could be on the right track, for the more you expose yourself to the sun, the more the signs of aging take hold. Sunburn can happen in even less than 15 minutes. It can happen faster than that in the case of exposure to sources of intense UV lighting. In most cases though, the harm that is done usually isn’t obvious, at least not right away.

Once you’re exposed, your skin may start turning red as quickly as 30 minutes later though more often than not, it will take about 2 to 6 hours. Then comes the pain, usually set in around 6 to 48 hours later. If you think your sunburn is getting worse after that, you’re not imaging it. It can take 1 to 3 days to fully develop and then in about 3 to 8 days, your skin will peel. The itching and peeling may go on for weeks.

And yes, you can totally get a sunburn even with sunscreen. If you fall asleep in the sun or neglect to reapply more sunscreen after being outside for over 80 minutes, you run a huge risk. Some of the radiation still gets through even when you’re vigilant. This is why you need to limit your time in the sun. When at the pool or beach, go sit under an umbrella for a little while before heading back out in the rays. Bring a shelter like a pop-up tent if you’re out by the lake with no places to shield you from the rays. You certainly don’t want to cause damage to your skin. You may not feel bad about it while you’re young, but when you’re older, you’ll regret it. Just ask anyone in the older generations!

The radiation level

Now let’s get into the UV Index and what that means. Your risk for sunburn can be much greater depending on these things. Some of them include:

  • Time of day
  • Clouds
  • Reflective surfaces
  • Seasons
  • Altitude
  • Where you are in relation to the equator

For one, the time of the day is a huge factor. In most places, the rays of the sun are the strongest between 10am and 4pm. If you must go out in the sun during these times, protect yourself properly.

Another factor is the cloud cover. UV rays are partially blocked by clouds, though that doesn’t completely save you. Plenty of those rays can still get through, enough to cause your skin permanent damage. If you go out to the pool or beach on a cloudy day, don’t let your guard down. Keep your sunscreen on, wear a hat, take breaks often, and practice the same vigilance as you would on a super-sunny day.

Did you know what surrounds you can also affect the UV Index? Reflective surfaces can make the rays stronger for you. So, if you’re sitting right next to the pool on a concrete pool deck or watching the waves roll into shore while sitting on the sand, you’ll have a higher rate of exposure.

Many people mistakenly think that when it’s cold out, they’re safe from the UV rays, but you should know that snow and ice are also reflective surfaces that can leave you with a sunburn. Yes, the seasons do play a role in that the sun will be strongest in late spring and early summer due to its positioning, but you can still wind up with sunburn any other time of year too.

For those of you that enjoy snow skiing or rock climbing, higher altitudes mean more chances for sunburn. The higher the elevation, the less atmosphere there is to block the sunlight. Your exposure to UV rays increases by roughly 4% for every 1,000 feet you move upward.

And you may have suspected quite correctly that the closer you are to the equator, the more prone to sunburn you’ll be. More direct sunlight passes through the atmosphere in the places just north and south of that line. Those in the southern US get 50% more sunlight than those in the northern portion. That means the folks in Florida really aren’t joking when they complain about all that heat!

Knowing this, you can take steps to limit the amount of sun you get and protect your skin from the most damaging rays. Too much exposure can lead to mutations in your DNA and that can lead to cancer. Sunburns are the most severe because your body has a hard time repairing that DNA damage. When it can’t make these repairs, it is much more likely that you will have skin cancer at some point so play it safe in the sun at all times!

So, what’s worse a suntan or a sunburn?

Sunburns are most definitely worse, but both sunburns and suntans can cause skin cancer. The pain from sunburn is just no fun. You can do a few things to remedy that by using a cool compress, taking a cool bath, or taking OTCs such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. The more water you drink, the better off you’ll be. You’ll hydrate yourself from the inside out, though you should also add a moisturizing cream (Amazon link) or use pure aloe vera gel to soothe your discomfort on the outside, as long as your skin isn’t blistered.

In extreme cases, sunburn can cause shock and dehydration, among other serious reactions. You’d likely have to have fallen asleep at a peak time of day in the sun to incur such a burn, but even if you don’t think you were out very long, pay attention to how you feel. Should you have a rapid heartbeat or breathing, fainting, dizziness, nausea, fever, chills, or a headache to go along with your sunburn, you need to get medical treatment immediately.

Remember, we all have around the same number of melanocytes, but everyone varies in how much melanin and what colors of melanin is produced. Those with darker skin have more natural sun protection from the melanin, however, this should never be taken lightly. If your skin is darker, you should still protect it. And even when you do protect your skin with sunblock, you are still vulnerable to UV rays so be careful!

Here’s how melanin causes sunburn or suntan:

  • Your body produces melanin to protect your deeper layers of skin.
  • Your skin compensates with more melanin to protect it from further damage.
  • Your skin changes color.
  • Darker skin turns darker brown or tan in the sun.
  • Lighter skin turns redder or even burns in the sun.

Aside from this, some people even get uneven patches of color or have freckles. Again, this is all the work of melanin production when exposed to sunlight. Melanocytes do not increase in quantity. They only increase their activity.

Now that you know how your body reacts to sun exposure, keep reading to find out how you can protect it and avoid sunburns every time you are outdoors!

How to prevent a sunburn

Damage to your skin from the sun can happen on cloudy days. Knowing this, you should always be prepared when you leave your home. Some quick tips on that follow below.

– Avoid sunlight during its peak hours

Perhaps you can’t avoid it when you’ve been invited to an exclusive poolside party at a ritzy hotel, are meeting friends at the beach, or are participating in a 5k around the lake, but whenever possible, you should avoid going out in the sun during the peak hours of the day. Some say from 10am to 4pm is the strongest, though in the middle part of that range is the height of strength for UV rays.

Make sure when you go outside that you wear sunglasses and a hat, plus keep your skin covered. When engaging in sports outside, look for UV protected clothing to help keep the skin underneath your clothing safe.

And no matter what you’re wearing, use sunscreen. It greatly reduces your chances of getting skin cancer by taking the UV radiation away from being absorbed by your skin. Keep reading for more on why sunscreen is so important.

– Always wear sunscreen

If you’re just passively in the sun for parts of those peak hours, use SPF 15. If you plan to be out in the sun for longer or any of the UV Index factors mentioned above apply to you, you most definitely should go with a higher SPF like the sun lotion by La Roche-Posay with SPF 60 mentioned above. Remember, you won’t notice you burnt your skin until 12 to 24 hours later when it’s too late.

And just so you know, that higher SPF is not going to make it harder for you to get a tan. An SPF of 50 and an SPF of 15 are going to do the same thing, but the SPF 50 formula is going to last longer. That means you can stay out in the sun for longer without having to reapply as often. Still, experts recommend you reapply every 2 hours or when your skin gets wet or sweaty. Sport formulas last even longer because they’re waterproof but still need to be reapplied. Best of all, if you want a tan, a higher SPF is the ticket because it allows you to get a good, safer bronzed hue without burning and then peeling.

– Dress accordingly when you’re outside

Stay covered up when you’re in the sun to avoid damages. The more covered you are, the more protection you’ll have. Again, you should choose clothing that has UPF, a UV protection factor for clothes that is ideal for small children, athletes, or anyone that is going to be spending lots of time in the sun. For example, if you go to Disney World, you will really benefit from these kinds of clothing because you’ll stay protected and feel lightweight.

So, what happens if you follow prevention methods but it’s just too late and you’re now red and burnt? Keep reading on how to handle a sunburn!

How to reduce a sunburn

If you have a sunburn now for your first time, we hope it will fade away quickly without any lasting effects and we hope you’ll take better precautions from now on for your health and safety. Sunburns take different times to heal depending on how bad they are. A mild one can last anywhere from 3 to 5 days. You’ll be red and a little sore. You will also peel toward the end of this as your skin heals.

When you have a moderate sunburn, it will likely hang around for a week. It’s much more painful and your skin will be red and hot. After this week, you’ll have peeling skin. Severe sunburns will last as long as 2 weeks. Your skin will be extremely red and painful. It will likely blister too. You more than likely may need to visit a doctor, or in extreme situations, go to the hospital. I’ve included some scientifically proven methods to help you get rid of a sunburn further below.

Call your doctor if you’re experiencing severe sunburn

A severe sunburn shouldn’t be taken lightly, ever. If you or someone you’ve been out in the sun with experiences any of these symptoms, you must see medical treatment right away:

  • The sunburn is severe with blisters and lots of pain
  • It covers much of your body
  • You have a headache
  • You experience fever
  • You feel like you may faint
  • You suffer from chills
  • You have dizziness or fatigue
  • Hallucinations or other alternate states
  • Speedy heartbeat
  • Extreme dehydration with an unquenchable thirst
  • Reduced or lack of urination
  • Pus, tenderness, and swelling with the blisters

– Take a cool bath

Avoid hot or warm water. Instead, a cooling bath can help. Once you get out, put on appropriate moisturizer immediately to lock in hydration.

– Use cool compresses

Just 10 to 15 minutes of using a cold compress can make a huge difference in quelling sunburn pain. Avoid putting ice directly on your skin and instead wrap it in a clean cloth first.

– Take medicine

Medicines you can get anywhere like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help a lot. They’ll calm the redness and keep the damage from being permanent. The trick to making this work though is to do so within 24 hours of getting that sunburn.

Things like aspirin and ibuprofen reduce swelling and discomfort. Hydrocortisone cream can speed up healing. Anything that has “-caine” in it though should be avoided as they can be irritating toward the skin and trap the heat in.

– Stay hydrated

When you get a sunburn, it’s important to drink lots of water. Sunburns draw fluids to your skin and out of the rest of your body. Try to avoid alcohol too as it will only serve to dehydrate you more.

– Keep your skin moisturized

To keep skin that isn’t blistered healthy and heal it faster, use a moisturizer or an aloe vera gel. Spray-on versions of these things might be very helpful in relieving the pain and offering hydrating protection where you can’t reach.

Additionally, you should use a fading cream to blend away sun spots or hyperpigmentation. Though you should only do this after your sunburn has healed as some of these types of creams, while nourishing and good for skin, may contain ingredients that irritate the sunburn.

– Don’t scratch your sunburn patches

When you’re taking care of dark patches on your skin, it might be tempting to scratch them but don’t! This will only lead to permanent damage. Instead, you should use natural exfoliation items like loofahs and sponges. Be sure you use soap with the same pH level as your skin like Neutrogena Rainbath Refreshing (Amazon link) the smell it self will get you hooked. This will boost your chances of getting rid of these patches while softening your skin.

How to reduce dark spots and sunburn marks

By now, it’s probably abundantly obvious that the best way to reduce these things is to prevent them altogether. When you expose your skin to dangerous levels of the sun, it leads to visible signs of aging plus puts you at risk for skin cancer.

If you do have dark spots and uneven skin tone from your days in the sun, fading cream like SkinMedica Scar Recovery Gel (Amazon link) should help tremendously. You can also try red light laser therapy or cryotherapy, the latter of which uses ice-cold temperatures to freeze skin lesions and remove them for a corrected appearance.

Should you have pigmentation problems, red light therapy and using retinol are the way to go. You can use skin creams for lightening from anywhere, but prescription ones might be needed. If nothing has been working for you, you should consult your dermatologist to craft a plan to get your skin looking fabulous again.

In most cases though, shopping for creams and serums that use retinol like this one by Smooth Retinol & Glycolic Acid Resurfacing Serum (Amazon link) or AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) help exfoliate dead skin away and promote new growth for skin. Even though you can click these things into your cart now, if you’re not sure about your skin, ask your dermatologist first to be sure the ingredients are ideal for your particular skin type.

Smooth Retinol & Glycolic Acid Resurfacing Serum
  • For Stretch Marks, Dark Spots, and Acne Scars
  • Refines & Restructures Skin For a Clearer, and a Smoother Complexion  
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Natural formulations are best, particularly with niacinamide which is a form of vitamin B3 and things like licorice extract, mulberry and soy seem to deliver positive results in studies. Even tried and true organic Aloe Vera gel (Amazon link) can help color correct, especially with melasma, the kind of hyperpigmentation that most often occurs during pregnancy.


The bottom line here is that suntans and sunburns both damage your skin and can lead to skin cancer. With correct measures in place, you can tan without incurring major damages to your skin though you will still expose yourself to harmful UV rays even with protection.

That’s why it’s important to limit sun activities and take care of your health. At the same time, hiding from the sun isn’t good either. Like anything, balance is key. When you’re out in the sun, set a timer for yourself so you remember to reapply your sunscreen or take a break for lunch or snacks in the shade. Doing these little things give big results for healthier skin!


My name is Hajer and welcome to my site. This is my little haven, my outlet, where I can express myself, and show you everything I've learned about makeup, skincare, hair tips, and so much more, as well as the different beauty mistakes I've made so that you can avoid them.

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