How fast can I get sunburned without protection?

Man surprised at extent of sunburn.
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Asking how fast it takes to get sunburned without any protection is a lot like asking how long it takes to run a mile. The answer depends entirely on the person you're asking. Hicham El Guerrouj, the current mile world record holder, would tell you it takes roughly 3 minutes and 43 seconds to run the distance, while an average high school student might tell you it takes well over 7 minutes [source: Tymn]. Sunburns are no different. The amount of time it takes to get one can depend on a person's complexion, the time of day he or she was exposed to the sun or any number of other factors.

A person's complexion partly determines how quickly he or she gets burned. If a person with a light complexion and a person with a dark complexion went to the beach together and neither of them wore sunscreen, the person with the light complexion would burn faster. This happens because fair-skinned people start out with less melanin, which gives you a tan and helps protect you from the sun. People with naturally dark complexions produce more melanin, and that's why it takes them longer to get burned [source: Rudis]. Regardless, ultraviolet rays cause damage, penetrating deep into the skin, and you should always protect yourself with sunscreen no matter what your complexion is.


Similarly, if two people with the same complexion went to the beach, but one went at noon and the other went at 4 p.m., the person who went earlier would burn in a shorter amount of time. This is due to the simple fact that the sun's rays are stronger between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. [source: Web MD]. Aside from complexion and the time of day you spend in the sun, there are several other factors that will affect how long it takes you to get a sunburn. They include your diet, your age, the amount of cloud cover in the sky and many more.

Despite several factors, however, most unprotected skin types can burn in minutes, especially when the UV Index Scale is high [Environmental Protection Agency]. It's never a good idea to spend time in the sun without protection. Wearing sunscreen will not only help prevent skin cancer, but it will also keep your skin looking healthy and young. It doesn't take much to get a sunburn, so see the links on the next page for lots more information.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Environmental Protection Agency. "UV Index Scale." May 15, 2009. (Aug. 15, 2009)
  • Rudis, Jacquelyn. "True or False: Dark-skinned People Don't Need Sunscreen." The Doctors of USC. Sept. 2006. (Aug. 15, 2009)
  • Tymn, Mike. "Mile Trivia." Running Times. May 2004. (Aug. 15, 2009)
  • Web MD. "Sunburn - Topic Overview." Dec. 28, 2007. (Aug. 15, 2009)