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 (see below).
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.
- 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 or the NHS 24 111 service for advice if you feel unwell or have any concerns about your sunburn, particularly if you are burnt over a large area or 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)
- a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above, or 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 – for example, while on holiday
- 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.
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
To ensure they get enough vitamin D, children aged under five are advised to take vitamin D supplements even if they do get out in the sun.