Sunburn is skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays. It usually causes the skin to become red, sore, warm, tender and occasionally itchy for about a week.
The skin will normally start to flake and peel after a few days and will usually fully heal within seven days. While sunburn is often short-lived and mild, it’s important to try to avoid it, because it can increase your chances of developing serious health problems, such as skin cancer, in later life.
It’s easy to underestimate your exposure to the sun when outside, as the redness doesn’t usually develop for several hours. Breezes and getting wet (such as going in and out of the sea) may cool your skin, so you don’t realise you’re getting burnt.
You should always be aware of the risk of sunburn if you’re outside in strong sun, and look out for your skin getting hot.
What to do if you’re sunburnt
If you or your child has sunburn, you should get out of the sun as soon as possible – head indoors or into a shady area. You can usually treat mild sunburn at home, although there are some circumstances where you should seek medical advice .
- The following advice may help to relieve your symptoms until your skin heals:
- Cool the skin by sponging it with cold water or by having a cold bath or shower
- Applying a cold compress such as a cold flannel to the affected area may also help.
- Drink plenty of fluids to cool you down and prevent dehydration.
- Apply a water-based emollient
- Take painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to relieve any pain – aspirin should not be given to children under 16.
- Try to avoid all sunlight, including through windows, by covering up the affected areas of skin until your skin has fully healed.
When to seek medical advice
You should contact your GP:
- if you feel unwell or have any concerns about your sunburn
- particularly if you are burnt over a large area
- have any of the more severe symptoms listed below.
You should also see your GP if a young child or baby has sunburn, as their skin is particularly fragile.
- Signs of severe sunburn can include:
- blistering or swelling of the skin (oedema)
- high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
- 37.5C (99.5F) or above in children under five
- dizziness, headaches and feeling sick (symptoms of heat exhaustion)
- Your GP may recommend using hydrocortisone cream for a few days (this is also available over the counter at pharmacies) to reduce the inflammation of your skin.
Severe sunburn may require special burn cream and burn dressings from your GP or a nurse at your GP surgery. Very occasionally, hospital treatment may be needed.
Who’s at risk of sunburn?
Everyone who is exposed to UV light is at risk of getting sunburn, although some people are more vulnerable than others.
You should take extra care when out in the sun if you:
- have pale, white or light brown skin
- have freckles or red or fair hair
- tend to burn rather than tan
- have many moles
- have skin problems relating to a medical condition
- are only exposed to intense sun occasionally
- while on holiday and are in a hot country where the sun is particularly intense
- have a family history of skin cancer
- People who spend a lot of time in the sun, whether it’s for work or play, are at increased risk of skin cancer if they don’t take the right precautions.
- Snow, sand, concrete and water can reflect the sun’s rays onto your skin, and the sun is more intense at high altitudes.
Dangers of UV rays
The short-term risks of sun exposure are sunburn and sun allergy.
- The longer-term risks (over decades) include:
- actinic (solar) keratoses – rough and scaly pre-cancerous spots on the skin
- skin cancer – including both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer
- eye problems – such as photokeratitis (snow blindness) and cataracts
- premature ageing of the skin and wrinkling
Skin should be protected from strong sunlight by covering up with suitable clothing, seeking shade and applying sunscreen. In the UK, the risk of getting sunburnt is highest from March to October, particularly from 11am to 3pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest.
There is also a risk of getting sunburn in other weather conditions – for example, light reflecting off snow can also cause sunburn. You can also burn in cloudy and cool conditions.
- a wide-brimmed hat that shades the face, neck and ears
- a long-sleeved top
- trousers or long skirts in close-weave fabrics that do not allow sunlight through
- sunglasses with wraparound lenses or wide arms with the CE Mark and European
- Standard EN 1836:2005.Sunscreen:
When buying sunscreen, make sure it’s suitable for your skin and blocks both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation.
The sunscreen label should have:
the letters “UVA” in a circle logo and at least 4-star UVA protection
at least SPF15 sunscreen to protect against UVB
Most people do not apply enough sunscreen. The amount of sunscreen needed for the body of an average adult to achieve the stated sun protection factor (SPF) is around 35ml or 6 to 8 teaspoons of lotion.
If sunscreen is applied too thinly, it provides less protection. If you’re worried you might not be applying enough SPF15, you could use a stronger SPF30 sunscreen.
If you plan to be out in the sun long enough to risk burning, sunscreen needs to be applied twice: 30 minutes before going out just before you go out
Sunscreen should be applied to all exposed skin, including the face, neck and ears (and head if you have thinning or no hair), but a wide-brimmed hat is better.
How long it takes for your skin to go red or burn varies from person to person. The Cancer Research UK website has a handy tool where you can find out your skin type, to see when you might be at risk of burning.
Water-resistant sunscreen is needed if sweating or contact with water is likely.
Sunscreen needs to be reapplied liberally, frequently and according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This includes straight after you’ve been in water (even if it is “water-resistant”) and after towel drying, sweating or when it may have rubbed off.
Advice for babies and children
Children aged under six months should be kept out of direct strong sunlight.
From March to October in the UK, children should cover up with suitable clothing
spend time in the shade (particularly from 11am to 3pm) wear at least SPF15 sunscreen
What to look for
Sunburn is the reddening of the skin resulting from overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation through the sun’s UV rays. The initial signs of sunburn appear around five to seven hours after exposure and peak at 12 to 24 hours. However, the starting point is earlier and the severity more considerable with increased exposure. Remember, sunburn can happen in as little as 10 to 20 minutes.
After a few hours of heavy sun exposure, you might see or feel tenderness and warmth in the skin, swelling, redness and, in severe cases, blistering, itching, rash and occasionally nausea, fever or chills. Several days later, it is common for the skin to peel, which can continue for several weeks.
After sun exposure
After sun exposure, the skin undergoes two changes – immediate and delayed darkening. Immediate darkening can occur within hours and delayed starts three to four days after exposure and lasts 10 to 15 days.
Sunlight consists of two types of UV radiation – UVB and UVA. Both UVB and UVA can cause freckling, skin wrinkling and the development of skin cancer. However, UVB is stronger and is the main cause of sunburn and skin cancer. The World Health Organization recommends limiting time in the midday sun (10am and 4pm), and using proper sun protection such as hats and light-coloured clothing.
Do not forget that premature ageing, wrinkling, age spots and skin cancer are the result of unprotected sun exposure, so even if it is cloudy, you are in your car or in the swimming pool, you are exposed to the hazardous rays. Sunburn does not only occur in hot weather, but also any light reflecting conditions such as snow, sand and water. When your skin is exposed to UV rays, it produces a pigment called melanin to help protect itself against the sunlight. However, this does not stop premature ageing and skin cancer.
Immediate self-care includes covering exposed skin and getting out of the sun. Taking a cool shower/bath or placing a cold compress with water or Burow solution (available from pharmacies) on the area helps.
In case of blistering, use a dry bandage and have a cool bath with no bath salts and avoid rubbing, shaving and scrubbing the skin. In addition, use high quality moisturisers which are lanolin and fragrance-free, drink plenty of fluids, use a soft towel and gently pat your skin dry to avoid popping or breaking the blisters and then cover blisters with gauze. Continue your moisturising regimen while your skin is peeling and, most importantly, give your body a rest from the sun.
If there are any signs of fever, rapid breathing, nausea, serious dehydration, heat stress or shock, call an emergency health centre without delay.
What Causes Sunburn
Signs of Sunburn
You lie out in the sun hoping to get a golden tan, but instead walk away from your lounge chair looking like a lobster that’s been left in the pot too long.
Despite health warnings about sun damage, many of us still subject our skin to the sun’s burning rays.
More than one-third of adults and nearly 70% of children admit they’ve gotten sunburned within the past year, according to the CDC.
Here’s what you need to know about how to keep your skin safe and where to find sunburn relief if you do linger on your lounger too long.
What Causes Sunburn
You already know the simple explanation behind sunburn. When your skin is exposed to the sun for a period of time, eventually it burns, turning red and irritated.sunburn
Under the skin, things get a little more complicated. The sun gives off three wavelengths of ultraviolet light:
UVC light doesn’t reach the Earth’s surface. The other two types of ultraviolet light not only reach your beach towel, but they penetrate your skin. Skin damage is caused by both UVA and UVB rays.
Sunburn is the most obvious sign that you’ve been sitting outside for too long. But sun damage isn’t always visible. Under the surface, ultraviolet light can alter your DNA, prematurely aging your skin. Over time, DNA damage can contribute to skin cancers, including deadly melanoma.
How soon a sunburn begins depends on:
- Your skin type
- The sun’s intensity
- How long you’re exposed to the sun
A blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman sunbathing in Rio de Janeiro will redden far sooner than an olive-complexioned woman sitting out on a sunny day in New York City.
Signs of Sunburn
When you get a sunburn, your skin turns red and hurts. If the burn is severe, you can develop swelling and sunburn blisters. You may even feel like you have the flu — feverish, with chills, nausea, headache, and weakness.
A few days later, your skin will start peeling and itching as your body tries to rid itself of sun-damaged cells.