Sunburn is skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays.
The skin becomes red, warm, sore and tender. It may start to flake and peel after a few days, and will usually fully heal within 7 days.
Sunburn is usually mild and short-lived, but it’s important to try to avoid it because it can increase your risk of developing skin problems in later life, such as ageing (wrinkling) and skin cancer.
It can be easy to underestimate the strength of the sun when you’re outside. The wind 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 sunshine, 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 get medical advice.
To help relieve your symptoms until your skin heals:
- cool you skin by having a cold bath or shower, sponging it with cold water, or holding a cold flannel to it
- use lotions containing aloe vera to soothe and moisturise your skin
- drink plenty of fluids to cool you down and prevent dehydration
- take painkillers, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, to relieve pain (but don’t give aspirin to children under 16)
Try to avoid all sunlight, including through windows, by covering up the affected areas of skin until it’s fully healed.
When to get medical advice
Contact your GP, go to your nearest NHS walk-in centre, or call NHS 111 if you feel unwell or you’re concerned about your sunburn, particularly if you’re 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 sensitive.
Signs of severe sunburn can include:
- blistering or swelling of the skin
- a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
- dizziness, headaches and feeling sick – symptoms of heat exhaustion
Special burn cream and burn dressings may be needed for severe sunburn. These are available from your GP or nurse at your GP surgery. Treatment in hospital may occasionally be needed.
Who’s at risk of sunburn?
Everyone who’s exposed to UV light is at risk of getting sunburn, but some people are more vulnerable than others.
You should take extra care when out in the sun if you:
- have pale or white 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
Snow, sand, concrete and water can reflect the sun’s rays on to your skin, and the sun is more intense at high altitudes.
Dangers of UV rays
Sunburn and sun allergy are short-term risks of sun exposure.
Longer-term risks over decades include:
- rough and scaly pre-cancerous spots on the skin (solar keratosis)
- skin cancer – both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer
- damage to the eyes from UV rays
- premature ageing and wrinkling of the skin
Protect your skin from strong sunlight by covering up with suitable clothing, finding shade, and applying sunscreen.
In the UK, the risk of getting sunburn is highest from March to October, particularly from 11am to 3pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest.
You can also burn in cloudy and cool conditions, and from sunlight reflecting off snow.
When out in the sun for long periods, you should wear:
- a wide-brimmed hat that shades your face, neck and ears
- a long-sleeved top
- trousers or long skirts made from close-weave fabrics that don’t 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 circular logo and at least 4-star UVA protection
- a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 to protect against UVB
Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen. Around 35ml (6-8 teaspoons) of sun lotion is needed to cover the body of an average-sized adult and achieve the stated SPF.
Watch this video about how to apply sunscreen.
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
Apply it to all areas of exposed skin, including your face, neck and ears. Also apply it to your head if you have thinning or no hair, but wearing a wide-brimmed hat is better.
The length of time it takes for 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.
You need to use water-resistant sunscreen if you’re exercising and sweating or in contact with water.
Apply sunscreen liberally, frequently and according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This includes straight after you’ve been in water (even if it’s “water-resistant”) and after towel drying, sweating, or when it may have rubbed off.
Advice for babies and children
Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight.
During warm, sunny weather in the UK, children of all ages should:
- cover up with long-sleeved shirts and long trousers or skirts
- wear a wide-brimmed hat that covers the face, neck and ears
- wear sunglasses that protect against UVA and UVB rays
- use sunscreen (at least SPF15) and reapply it regularly throughout the day
- spend time in the shade, such as under a tree or umbrella, or in a sun tent (particularly during the middle of the day)
To ensure they get enough vitamin D, it’s recommended children aged 1-4 years should have a daily vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms, even if they do get out in the sun.