SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation can damage the skin and may cause skin cancer, including dangerous melanoma.
- Each time you expose your skin to UV radiation, you increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
- You don’t have to be sunburnt to increase your risk of skin cancer.
- Sunburn can start to occur in as little as 11 minutes and, depending on the severity, can take a few days or weeks to heal.
- There is no cure for the symptoms of sunburn except time and patience.
- Mild sunburn can be treated at home, but severe and blistered sunburn needs prompt medical attention.
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What is sunburn?
Sunburn is the skin's reaction to too much exposure to 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.
Sunburn is a radiation burn to the skin. The signs of sunburn can start to appear in as little as 11 minutes and skin can turn red within 2 to 6 hours of being burnt. It will continue to develop for the next 24 to 72 hours and, depending on the severity, can take days or weeks to heal.
Sunburn will become worse with more exposure to UV rays. Mild sunburn can be treated at home, but severe and blistered sunburn requires 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). DNA in cells may be damaged, and, if not repaired by the body repeatedly over time, abnormal cells may develop, leading to cancer. This is why prevention is very important.
Reduce the risk of sunburn
To prevent sunburn and skin damage, use a combination of sun protection measures during the sun protection times each day (when the UV levels are forecast to reach 3 or higher). You can find these times on the SunSmart app or widget, or at the Bureau of Meteorology website.
In Victoria, UV levels are typically 3 and above from mid-August to the end of April. From May to mid-August, UV levels are usually low (below 3), so sun protection is not required, unless in high altitudes or near UV reflective surfaces such as snow.
It is recommended that you use sun protection every day if you work outdoors as cumulative UV exposure adds up over time which adds to your risk of skin cancer.
During the daily sun protection times, use a combination of 5 sun protection measures to reduce your risk of skin damage and sunburn.
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 2 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 AS/NZS 1067).
Watch a video of top tips for sunscreen use.
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.
Sunburnt skin will change colour within 2 to 6 hours of being burnt and the colour change will continue to develop for up to 72 hours.
Australians and sunburn
On a summer's day in Australia, the signs of sunburn can start to appear in as little as 11 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.
A report citing Victorian emergency department presentations for sunburn during summer 2019–20 shows one in 2 (56%) were children and adolescents aged 0–19 years of age. Of the total 177 sunburn hospital presentations reported, almost one in 3 were adolescents aged 10–19 years.
Skin cancer (melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers) accounts for the largest number of cancers diagnosed in Australia each year. In 2019, over 2,800 Victorians were diagnosed with melanoma, with 270 losing their lives. For Victorians aged 15–29, melanoma is currently the third most commonly diagnosed cancer.
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 3 types of UV radiation (based on wavelength) are UVA, UVB and UVC. The earth's atmosphere absorbs nearly all 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:
- UVA – penetrates into the deeper skin layers and damages the sites 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 tanning, burning, ageing, skin damage and significantly promoting the development of 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 tan. A suntan is a sign that the skin has been damaged from UV radiation. It is not a sign of good health.
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.
Treatment for sunburn
There is no cure for the symptoms of 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 to detach on its own.
- Remove detached skin carefully and slowly. Don't rip skin 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 sun exposure is safe when you can't feel it sting your skin – that sting or bite is heat, not UV radiation. If you're not sure, don't chance it – check the sun protection times for your location.
- 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. Always use a combination of sun protection measures, never rely on just one to protect you.
- 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 doesn't protect against skin and eye damage, or the risk of skin cancer.
- All babies under 12 months should be kept out of direct sun when UV levels are 3 or higher. Physical protection such as dense shade, cool covering clothing and soft broad-brimmed hats are the best sun protection measures. For those small areas of exposed skin not protected by clothing or hats, apply sensitive or toddler sunscreen to infants 6 months and older. The widespread use of sunscreen on babies under 6 months old is not recommended.
Solariums are not safe
It is a myth that using a solarium is a safe way to tan. Solarium tans offer no protection against genetic damage to skin cells, which can occur without burning.
Due to the associated health risks, commercial solariums have been banned in Victoria since January 2015.
Where to get help
- Your GP (doctor)
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 606 024 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Cancer Council Tel. 13 11 20 – for information and support
- Cancer Council – multilingual resources Tel. 13 14 50
- SunSmart Tel. (03) 9514 6419
- Radiation Safety Hotline, Department of Health, Victorian Government Tel. 1300 767 469
- Sunburn, Women’s and Children’s Health Network, South Australian Government.
- Sun protection and sunscreens, Australasian College of Dermatologists.
- About UV and sun protection times, Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Government.
- SunSmart calls for urgent action as teens present with sunburn to hospitals in alarming numbers, 2021, SunSmart.