Sunburn is skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays. Too much exposure to UV light can make your skin red and painful, which can later lead to peeling or blistering.

The severity of sunburn can vary depending on your skin type and how long you are exposed to UV rays.

However, the main symptoms of sunburn are red, sore and blistering skin. The symptoms may not occur immediately and can take up to five hours to appear.

Read more about the symptoms of sunburn.

UV light

Sources of UV light include:

  • sunlight
  • tanning beds
  • phototherapy lamps  these are used in light therapy to treat conditions such as jaundice in newborn babies (yellowing of the skin)

Sunburn often occurs when the sun's rays are most intense (usually between 11am and 3pm). However, there is also a risk of getting burned by the sun in other weather conditions.

For example, light reflecting off snow can also cause sunburn. A cloudy sky or breeze may make you feel cooler, but sunlight can still get through and damage your skin.

Who is at risk of sunburn?

Everyone who is exposed to UV light is at risk of getting sunburn. However, the less melanin you have, the less protected you are against the effects of UV light.

Melanin is a pigment that is produced when your skin is exposed to sunlight. It absorbs the UV radiation found in sunlight to help protect your skin. This results in your skin becoming darker, which is a sign that it has been damaged by UV rays.

If you have fair skin or red hair, or if you have not been in the sun much, your melanin levels will be low, increasing your risk of burning more quickly.

Read more about the causes of sunburn.

Melanin stops you burning so easily, but it does not prevent the other harmful effects of UV radiation.

Babies and young children are particularly at risk from sunburn.

Treating sunburn

Treatment for sunburn aims to cool the skin and relieve any pain or symptoms. Applying a cold flannel over the area will help cool the skin, while moisturising lotions and creams will help keep it moist.

Moisturisers that contain aloe vera will help to soothe your skin and calamine lotion can relieve any itching or soreness.

In severe cases of sunburn, you should ask your pharmacist for advice as you may need special treatment from your GP.

You should see your GP if you have sunburn and you feel faint, dehydrated or have severe blistering, or if a young child or baby has sunburn.

Read more about treating sunburn.

Risks of UV rays

Mild sunburn usually gets better between four and seven days after your skin has been exposed to UV rays.

However, damage from sunburn can have long-term effects, and frequent exposure to UV rays for long periods of time increases your risk of developing skin problems, such as skin cancer and premature ageing.

Read more about the risks of long-term exposure to UV rays.

Preventing sunburn

You can reduce your risk of developing skin cancer by protecting your skin with sunscreen. Follow the advice listed below.

  • Avoid strong sunlight whenever possible, particularly when the sun is strongest, and cover up with loose clothing and a hat.
  • When buying sunscreen, choose one with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least factor 15 the higher the better  that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Apply a generous amount of sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going out in the sun and reapply regularly at least every two to three hours. Even water-resistant sunscreens should be reapplied after you come out of the water.
  • A stick application with a high SPF is useful for exposed areas, such as your nose, ears and lips. These areas tend to burn more easily.
  • Keep babies and young children out of direct sunlight.

Read more about sun safety and protecting your skin.

Seek advice from your GP immediately if you notice changes to any of your moles, such as a change in their size, colour or texture.

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