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 (UV) radiation from the sun. 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.
During the summer months, the signs of sunburn can start to appear in less than 15 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 an increased risk of skin cancer, including melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer). Once DNA 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 or higher. In Victoria, the UV level is 3 or higher for much of the day from September to April. From May to August, the UV level is generally below 3 and sun protection is not required, unless you are near highly reflective surfaces such as snow, or outside for extended periods. Use sun protection during this time of the year if the UV level reaches 3 or higher.
Reduce the risk of sunburn
During the sun protection times use a combination of five sun protection measures 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 (or higher) broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen. Apply 20 minutes before going outdoors and reapply every two hours.
- Slap – on a broad-brimmed hat that protects your face, head, neck and ears.
- Seek – shade.
- Slide – on wrap-around sunglasses (make sure they meet Australian Standard AS1067).
Symptoms of sunburn
The symptoms of sunburn include:
- changes 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 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer each year.
It is encouraging that there has been a sustained decrease in weekend sunburn among Australian adolescents and adults, according to a national sun protection survey. However, further improvements are required.
Even the relatively low sunburn incidence across the 2010-11 summer translates to about 363,000 adolescents and two million adults being sunburnt on any given summer weekend.
Males are more likely to get sunburnt than females, because they spend more time outside during peak UV times and are less likely than females to use most forms of sun protection.
UV radiation and sunburn
In addition to light and heat, the sun gives out invisible UV 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 radiation (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 by:
- 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, causing 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 tan from the sun offers very limited sunburn protection (usually the same as using SPF3 sunscreen).
It is important to remember that 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’s cells. Each time you expose your skin to UV radiation from the sun or from a solarium, you increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
Solariums are not safe
It is a myth that using a solarium is a safe way to pre-tan and protects skin from burning in the sun. Solarium tans offer no protection against genetic damage to skin cells, which can occur without burning. Recognising the dangers associated with solarium use, the Victorian government has announced that solariums will be banned from 1 January 2015. In the meantime, 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 and 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.
When UV levels are 3 or higher for much of the day (generally from September to April in the southern parts of Australia and all year in the north) most people need just a few minutes of mid-morning or mid-afternoon sun exposure, for vitamin D. Be extra cautious in the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense.
People with naturally very dark skin may need more sun exposure. Sunscreen use (SPF30 or higher) during the sun protection times should not put people at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
When UV levels are usually below 3 (generally during the winter months in the southern parts of Australia), most people need at least 20 minutes of midday sun each day for vitamin D. Seeking out the midday winter sun is the best way to achieve this.
People with naturally very dark skin may need more sun exposure and supplements may be required. Sun protection is not required unless near highly reflective surfaces such as snow, outside for extended periods, or when the UV level reaches 3 or higher.
SunSmart daily UV alert
UV radiation levels vary depending on the location, time of year, time of day, cloud coverage and the environment. Sun protection is recommended whenever UV levels reach 3 or higher.
For best protection, check the SunSmart UV Alert for daily sun protection times, available as a free SunSmart app, or online at SunSmart or the Bureau of Meteorology in the weather section of newspapers, or as a free website widget. The sun protection times show when the UV level is forecast to be 3 or higher.
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 spending time in the sun can lead to dehydration as well as sunburn.
- Gently apply cool or cold compresses, or bathe the area in cool water.
- Avoid using soap as this may irritate your skin.
- Speak to a pharmacist about products that help soothe sunburn. Choose spray-on solutions rather than creams which require rubbing in 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. Do not apply butter to sunburnt skin.
- 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
See a doctor or seek treatment from the nearest hospital emergency department if you experience:
- 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
Suggestions on how to avoid getting sunburnt include:
- Don’t assume that sunshine is safe when you can’t feel it sting your skin – that sting or bite is infrared radiation (heat), not UV radiation. If you’re not sure, don’t chance it – check the sun protection times.
- 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 snowboarding 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 children are exposed to the sun.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information and support.
- 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 15 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.
- Skin cancer - children.
- 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: October 2014
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