OBJECTIVE: The purpose of this study was to determine the rate of sunburns in the U.S. adult population and the correlates of sunburns. METHODS: Data from the 2000 National Health Interview Survey Cancer Control Module were used to calculate the number of sunburns (0, 1, 2, or > or = 3) experienced during the past year by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and skin sensitivity to sun exposure. The relationship between no sunburns vs. one or more sunburns and additional demographic, health, and behavioral factors for adults who self-identify as white Hispanic or white non-Hispanic was assessed using general linear contrasts. Multivariate logistic regression modeling was conducted to determine the most important covariates associated with sunburns. All analyses were weighted for the complex sampling design. RESULTS: The study data suggest that overall, 18.5% (95% confidence interval [CI] 17.9, 19.1) of U.S. adults experience one sunburn a year, 9.7% (95% CI 9.3, 10.1) experience two, and 8.0% (95% CI 7.6, 8.4) experience > or = 3 sunburns. The data also indicate that adults who self-identify as white non-Hispanic experience sunburns more frequently than (in order of prevalence) those who identify as American Indian/Alaska Native, white Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, or black. Sunburns were found to be more common among men than among women, more common among younger age groups than among older age groups, and more common among those with skin more prone to sunburn than among those with skin less prone to sunburn. Among individuals who self-identify as white Hispanic or white non-Hispanic, protective behaviors associated with lower rates of one or more sunburns in multivariate analyses are staying in the shade (odds ratio [OR] 0.73, 95% CI 0.66, 0.80) and wearing long-sleeved shirts (OR 0.86, 95% CI 0.75, 0.99). CONCLUSIONS: Many American adults have one or more sunburns per year. Methods to protect from sun exposure may not be used as needed to prevent sunburn.