What causes a sunburn and suntan?

Any time your skin is not protected by sunscreen or clothes and gets too much sun, it can burn or tan. But why do some people get a sunburn and others get a suntan?

You have something called melanin in your skin. It's the stuff that gives your skin its color. People who have dark skin have more melanin. People who have light skin have less. 

Here's how melanin makes your skin burn or tan:

  • Your body normally makes melanin to try to protect the deeper layers of your skin from damage.
  • When your skin gets damaged by the sun's rays, it makes even more melanin to try to protect your skin from being damaged even more. That causes the skin to change color:
    • Dark-skinned people usually turn darker brown, or tan, when they go in the sun.
    • Light-skinned people usually turn more red, or burn, when they go in the sun.

Besides tanning or burning, a lot of people also get uneven patches of color, or freckles.

Even if you have naturally dark skin or never burn and always tan, that still means the sun is damaging your skin. And you can still get skin cancer and wrinkles some day.

If your parents would like to know more about skin cancer, they can visit a section of Dermatology A to Z about skin cancer. To join the effort to help prevent skin cancer, visit Spot Skin Cancer™.

Next: What is skin cancer?