Sunburn is the skin's reaction to ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight. By the time signs and symptoms of sunburn appear, skin damage has already occurred. Skin damage may be mild or severe, but blistered burns need medical attention. Long-term effects of repeated sunburn include premature wrinkling and increased risk of skin cancer, including melanoma.
Sunburn is the skin’s reaction to the ultraviolet radiation (UV) in sunlight. You can see sunlight and feel heat (infrared radiation) but you can’t see or feel UV radiation. It can damage your skin even on cool, cloudy days.
In Victoria’s summer months, the signs of sunburn can start to appear in less than 11 minutes and, depending on the severity, can take days or weeks to heal. Mild sunburn can be treated at home, but severe and blistered burns require prompt medical attention.
The long-term effects of repeated bouts of sunburn include premature wrinkling and increased risk of skin cancer, including melanoma (a type of skin cancer). Once skin damage occurs, it is impossible to reverse. This is why prevention is much better than cure.
Use sun protection whenever the UV Index reaches 3 and above. In Victoria, the UV Index is 3 or above for much of the day from the start of September to the end of April. From May to August, the UV Index is generally below 3 and sun protection is not required unless you are near highly reflective surfaces such as snow, or you are outside for extended periods of time. Use sun protection during this time of the year if the UV index reaches 3 and above.
Reducing the risk of sunburn
Use a combination of the five sun protection measures described below to reduce your sunburn risk. These measures include:
- Slip – on sun-protective clothing (make sure it covers as much skin as possible)
- Slop – on SPF (sun protection factor) 30+ broad-spectrum sunscreen. Apply 20 minutes before you go outdoors and reapply every two hours
- Slap – on a hat that protects your face, head, neck and ears
- Seek – shade
- Slide – on sunglasses (make sure they meet Australian Standard AS1067).
Symptoms of sunburn
The symptoms of sunburn include:
- Change in skin colour, ranging from pink to red and even purple
- Skin that feels hot to the touch
- Pain and/or itching
- Fluid-filled blisters that may itch and eventually pop or break
- Broken blisters that peel to reveal even more tender skin beneath.
Australians and sunburn
On a summer’s day in Australia, sunburn can occur in as little as 15 minutes. All types of sunburn, whether serious or mild, can cause permanent and irreversible skin damage. This could lay the groundwork for skin cancers to develop. Further sunburn only increases your risk of skin cancer. Over 1,800 Australians die from skin cancer each year.
According to a national sun protection survey, the number of adults reporting sunburn dropped by almost one-third between 2004 and 2007. Yet there was no change among adolescents – one in four teenagers are still getting burnt. This is not because they are deliberately trying to get a tan, but because they are forgetting to protect themselves.
Males are more likely to get sunburnt than females, because they spend more time outside during peak UV times and are less likely to use sunscreen.
It is important to remember that tanning without burning can still cause skin damage, premature skin ageing and skin cancer. Both sunburn and tanning are signs of your skin cells in trauma. A tan is not a sign of good health. but rather a sign that your skin is trying to protect itself from the sun's UV rays.
UV radiation and sunburn
In addition to light and heat, the sun gives out invisible ultraviolet radiation. UV radiation can pass through light cloud. It can also be scattered in the air and reflected by surfaces such as buildings, concrete, sand and snow. The three types of UV radiation (based on wavelength) are UVA, UVB and UVC. The earth’s atmosphere absorbs nearly all of UVC (the most dangerous type) before it reaches the ground.
UVA and UVB radiation are both involved in sunburn, but skin reacts differently to each type of radiation:
- UVA – penetrates into the deeper skin layers and damages the site where new skin cells are generated. Too much UVA radiation leads to roughening, dryness, blotchiness, wrinkling and sagging of the skin. High doses of UVA radiation can also cause sunburn, damage to genes in skin cells and skin cancer.
- UVB – is even more dangerous than UVA radiation and also causes skin damage and skin cancer. It affects the surface skin layer. The skin responds by releasing chemicals that dilate blood vessels. This causes fluid leakage and inflammation – better known as sunburn.
How UV affects your skin
Skin cells in the top layer of skin (epidermis) produce a pigment called melanin, which gives skin its natural colour. When skin is exposed to UV radiation, more melanin is produced, causing the skin to darken and tan. A tan is a sign that the skin has been damaged from UV radiation. It is not a sign of good health. A natural tan offers a very limited sunburn protection (usually the same using SPF3 sunscreen).
Tanning without burning can still cause skin damage, premature skin ageing and skin cancer. UV radiation can cause irreparable damage to the genes in the skin cells of the skin. Each time you expose your skin to UV radiation from the sun or from a solarium, you increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
Very fair-skinned people have to take extra care in the sun. No amount of sunbaking will result in a tan in very fair-skinned people. Their skin will just burn and become damaged. People who sunburn and never tan in the sun will not tan in a solarium.
Solariums are not safe
It is a myth that using a solarium is a safe way to pre-tan and protect your skin from burning in the sun. Solarium tans offer no protection against genetic damage to skin cells, which can occur without burning. Under the Trade Practices Act (2001), solarium operators are not allowed to advertise their services as safe.
UV and vitamin D
The sun's UV radiation is the major cause of skin cancer, but the best natural source of vitamin D. Vitamin D is a hormone that controls calcium levels in the blood. It is needed for healthy bones and muscles, and for general health.
Vitamin D is made in our bodies through a series of processes that start when our skin is exposed to UV. It is important to take a balanced UV approach to help with vitamin D levels while minimising the risk of skin cancer with appropriate sun protection measures.
In Victoria, sun protection is required from September to April when the UV index level is 3 and above. During these months, most Victorians need a few minutes a day of sun exposure, (to the face, the arms and hands or an equivalent area) outside of peak UV times, to help with vitamin D levels. People who naturally have very dark skin may need three to six times this exposure time. Using sunscreen when the UV is above 3 will not prevent vitamin D production.
From May to August, when Victoria’s UV level drops below 3, most people need about two to three hours of sunlight (spread over each week) to the face, the arms, the hands or an equivalent area). Seeking out the midday winter sun is the best way to achieve this. People with naturally very dark skin may need three to six times this exposure and supplements may be required. Sun protection is not required unless you are near highly reflective surfaces such as snow or are outside for extended periods or the UV level reaches 3 and above.
SunSmart daily UV alert
UV radiation levels vary depending on the location, the time of year, the time of day, cloud coverage and the environment. Sun protection is recommended whenever the UV index level reaches 3 and above.
For best protection, check the SunSmart UV Alert daily for the sun protection times. The sun protection times indicate when the UV Index is forecast to be 3 or above. At this level, sun protection is required. Sun protection times are available online (as a free SunSmart application for your phone) and in the weather section of newspapers.
Treatment for sunburn
There is no cure for sunburn except time and patience. Treatment aims to help manage the symptoms while the body heals. Suggestions include:
- Drink plenty of water, because you’re probably dehydrated as well as sunburnt.
- Gently apply cool or cold compresses, or bathe the area in cool water.
- Avoid using soap as this may irritate your skin.
- Do not apply butter to sunburnt skin.
- Talk to your pharmacist about products that help soothe sunburn. Choose spray-on solutions rather than creams you apply by hand.
- Don’t pop blisters. Consider covering itchy blisters with a wound dressing to reduce the risk of infection.
- If your skin is not too painful, apply moisturiser. This won’t stop the burnt skin from peeling off, but it will help boost the moisture content of the skin beneath.
- Take over-the-counter pain-relieving medication, if necessary.
- Keep out of the sun until your skin has completely healed.
Peeling sunburnt skin
There’s no cream or lotion that will stop burnt skin from peeling off. This is part of the natural healing process. When skin is peeling:
- Resist the temptation and don’t pick at the skin. Allow the dead skin sheets to detach on their own.
- Remove detached skin carefully and slowly. Don’t rip skin sheets off or you risk removing more skin than you intended.
- Apply antiseptic cream to the newly revealed skin to reduce the risk of infection.
Treatment for severe sunburn
You should see your doctor or seek treatment from your nearest hospital emergency department if you experience symptoms including:
- Severe sunburn with extensive blistering and pain
- Sunburn over a large area of skin
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dizziness or altered states of consciousness.
Sunburn prevention is best
Always check the SunSmart UV Alert and use a combination of sun protection measures of ‘Slip! Slop! Slap! Seek! and Slide! ’during the daily sun protection times. Cover up with clothing, apply SPF 30+ broad-spectrum sunscreen, wear a broad-brimmed hat that covers the face, ears and neck, slide on some wraparound sunglasses and seek shade wherever possible.
Other suggestions on how to avoid getting sunburnt include:
- Don’t assume that sunshine is safe when it doesn’t sting your skin – that sting or bite you can feel is infrared radiation (heat), not UV radiation.
- UV radiation levels aren’t linked to temperature. Don’t rely on the temperature to gauge when you need sun protection. Check the sun protection times each day and ‘Slip! Slop! Slap! Seek! and Slide’.
- Many Australians get sunburnt around water, at the beach or the pool. If there is no shade, you’ll need to protect yourself in other ways.
- You can get sunburnt when you’re relaxing and taking it easy, such as watching outdoor sports, picnicking at the park or while playing sports.
- Winter activities, such as snow skiing and snow boarding pose a high risk of sunburn because UV radiation is already higher in alpine regions than at sea level. Snow is also very efficient at reflecting UV radiation.
- What many people assume is windburn is actually sunburn. While wind can dry the skin, it doesn’t burn.
- A tan offers a small level of sunburn protection (around SPF 3), but doesn’t protect against skin and eye damage or the risk of skin cancer.
- Babies under 12 months should not be exposed to direct UV and should be well-protected from the sun. Always try to keep babies and children in the shade and use clothing to cover most of their body. Use small amounts of child-friendly sunscreen on uncovered areas such as the face and hands whenever your child is exposed to the sun.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Your local pharmacist
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Cancer Council Helpline Tel. 13 11 20
- Multilingual Cancer Information Line Tel. 13 14 50
- Radiation Safety Hotline, Department of Health, Victorian Government Tel. 1300 767 469
Things to remember
- Sunburn can occur in less than 11 minutes and, depending on the severity, can take a few days or weeks to heal.
- There is no cure for sunburn except time and patience.
- Mild sunburn can be treated at home, but severe and blistered burns need prompt medical attention.
- Excessive exposure to UV damages the skin permanently and may cause skin cancer, including dangerous malignant melanoma.
- Each time you expose your skin to UV radiation, you increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
- UV radiation exposure is the leading cause of premature ageing.
You might also be interested in:
- Canoeing and kayaking - preventing injury.
- Fishing - preventing injury.
- Orienteering - preventing injury.
- Running and jogging - preventing injury.
- Skin cancer - children.
- Skin cancer - prevention and early detection.
- Skin cancer - protecting outdoor workers.
- Skin cancer - tanning.
- Snow sports and cold-related injuries.
- Solariums (sunbeds and tanning beds).
- Sun protection in the snow.
- Surfing - preventing injury.
- Swimming - preventing injury.
- Walking - safety and environmental issues.
- Water polo - preventing injury.
- Water safety for children.
- Windsurfing - preventing injury.
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Last reviewed: November 2012
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Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your qualified health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residence and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a qualified health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.
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