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What actually happens to your skin if it gets burnt? And what can you do about it?

Catherine Lambert, staff writers, December 5, 2017 7:23PM Herald Sun

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The students at Challa Gardens Primary School know how to be sun smart. Picture: Tait Schmaal media_cameraThe students at Challa Gardens Primary School know how to be sun smart. Picture: Tait Schmaal


Reading level: red

Australians are told over and over again to stay out of the sun, wear a hat and use sunscreen, but why? What actually happens if you get burnt?

A lot, it turns out.

The most obvious and instant thing is the burnt skin becomes red and sore. After this, the damaged skin sometimes peels off.

Your DNA* can be damaged if you spend too long in the sun. Ultraviolet (UV) rays get into the skin and damage proteins within it, causing skin cells to deform and potentially become cancerous.

Sunburned Back media_cameraWoman with a sunburnt back.

Once the cells in the top layer of the skin detect damage, they begin to produce elements to counteract the damage, causing swelling and redness on the skin.

This reaction begins as soon as skin is exposed to the sun but won’t be felt fully until between a day and two days after the initial burn.

Slip, Slop, Slap in Winter media_cameraAnnabell and Jayden stay safe in the sun. Picture: Tom Huntley

This can also make the skin itchy and painful.

DNA damage causes the top level of the skin to produce melanin, the stuff that colours hair and skin. This is when a tan occurs, which despite popular belief, does not protect the skin from future burns. It’s the equivalent* of SPF 2.

So those who think a tan makes them healthy are very wrong indeed.

Once a burn has occurred, it’s too late to fix it and the skin needs to be given time to heal itself. Staying out of the sun, keeping hydrated, taking basic pain medication and applying cool bandages can help to ease the discomfort.

When the pain goes further than is manageable with these suggestions, including issues of vomiting and nausea, it’s time to visit the doctor.

Despite knowing a lot of things, 65 per cent of Australians were sunburnt in 2015 and 2016 according to the Skin Health Australia Report Card from last year.

And you don’t have to lie out in the sun to be burnt. Often Australians are burnt while doing simple things such as going for a quick walk, hanging out the laundry or driving to the shops in the sun.

Suncream media_cameraSoraya gets her sunscreen on at the beach. Picture: Adam Head

Specialist dermatologist* Dr Alvin Chong said it only takes 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure in peak UV times for a fair skinned person to burn.

“Incidental sun burn is a very real, terrible issue,” Dr Chong said.

“It can happen when you’re gardening, even walking the dog or cooking at a barbecue.

“The UV index can still be high on a cool 20 degree day and too many people still think that if it’s overcast they won’t get burnt.”

The report found 27 per cent of people reported getting sunburnt while gardening, 26 per cent while walking, 24 per cent while at the beach, 17 per cent while driving and 16 per cent while being a spectator at an event.

Melanoma* sufferer Rebecca Power, 45, of Williamstown in Victoria, won’t even go to the letterbox without wearing a hat.

QLD_CP_NEWS_SUNBURN_03NOV16 media_cameraEnglish woman Terri Morris being sun smart in Cairns. Picture: Marc McCormack

Each of her handbags and the family cars are stocked with sunscreen.

“I don’t leave the house without sunscreen because you never know when you’ll need it,” Ms Power said.

“Being caught without it is just not on. If I had $1 for every time I heard someone say they didn’t know they were being burnt I would be very wealthy.”

Dr Chong said 2000 Australians die each year from skin cancer and the majority of deaths are caused by melanoma even though they are the less common form of the disease.

Squama cell carcinomas are more common but not as lethal*.

“Seventy per cent of Australians will have skin cancer once by the time they’re 70,” he said.


DNA: carrier for genetic information

equivalent: equal

dermatologist: skin doctor

melanoma: type of skin cancer

lethal: deadly



Activity 1. Sunburn explanation

Construct a flow chart on what happens when your skin gets burnt using all the information from the article.

A flowchart is a visual representation of the sequence of steps and decisions needed to perform a process.
Each step in the sequence is noted within a diagram shape. Steps are linked by connecting lines and directional arrows.

Investigate how sunscreen works.
What are the ingredients in it that stops the skin from burning?
Where do the different SPF factors come into it?

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum links: English, Science

Activity 2. Slip, slop, slap rap!

Work in groups of three or dour to write a rap song about how to protect yourself from sunburn and skin cancer.
Use the information from the article and you can research a little more about the UV index and the most dangerous times to be in the sun if you have time.
Aim your rap at children. Make sure it isn’t too complex and make sure it gets the message across about how important sun protection is.

Perform your raps to the class.

Is there anywhere else you could perform them?

Brainstorm some ideas on how we can make Australians more aware about the dangers of the sun and getting sunburnt.
What could schools do to ensure kids are safe from the sun?

Time: allow 45 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum links: Music, English, Personal and Social, Critical and Creative Thinking


(Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers and Punctuation)

Circle the technical words that appear in this article about sunburn.
Use these words to create a warning poster about the dangers of staying in the sun too long.


Talk to a partner about the ways you could stay safe from the summer sun.
Share any personal experiences you have had with getting burnt.
How did it happen? Where were you? How did you feel?

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum Links: English, Big Write, VCOP








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