One of the longest standing problems in DNA repair is how cells relax chromatin in order to make DNA lesions accessible for global nucleotide excision repair (NER). Since chromatin has to be relaxed for efficient lesion detection, the key question is whether chromatin relaxation precedes lesion detection or vice versa. Chromatin accessibility factors have been proposed but not yet identified. Here we show that p53 acts as a chromatin accessibility factor, mediating UV-induced global chromatin relaxation. Using localized subnuclear UV irradiation, we demonstrate that chromatin relaxation is extended over the whole nucleus and that this process requires p53. We show that the sequence for initiation of global NER is as follows: transcription-associated lesion detection; p53-mediated global chromatin relaxation; and global lesion detection. The tumour suppressor p53 is crucial for genomic stability, a role partially explained by its pro-apoptotic capacity. We demonstrate here that p53 is also a fundamental component of DNA repair, playing a direct role in rectifying DNA damage.