Introduction

Sunburn
Sunburn

Sunburn is skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays.

The skin becomes red, sore, warm and tender. It may start to flake and peel after a few days and will usually fully heal within seven 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 sun, 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 seek medical advice.

To help relieve your symptoms until your skin heals:

  • cool the 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 moisture 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 your skin has fully healed.

When to seek medical advice

Contact your GP or call NHS Direct Wales on 0845 46 47 (or NHS 111 if available in your area) if you feel unwell or you're concerned about your sunburn, particularly if you are 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:

Special burn cream and burn dressings may be needed for severe sunburn. These are available from your GP or a nurse at your GP surgery. Treatment in hospital may occasionally be needed.

Who's at risk of sunburn?

Everyone who is 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

People who spend a lot of time in the sun, whether it’s for work or play, are at increased risk of skin cancer if they don’t take the right precautions.

Snow, sand, concrete and water can reflect the sun’s rays onto 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

Preventing sunburn

Protect your skin from strong sunlight by covering up with suitable clothing, finding shade and applying sunscreen.

In the UK, the risk of getting sunburnt 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.

Suitable clothing:

When out in the sun for long periods, you should wear:

  • a wide-brimmed hat that shades the face, neck and ears
  • a long-sleeved top
  • trousers or long skirts made from close-weave fabrics that do not allow sunlight through
  • sunglasses with wraparound lenses or wide arms with the CE Mark and European Standard EN 1836:2005.

Sunscreen:

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 do not apply enough sunscreen. Around 35ml (6 to 8 teaspoons) of sun lotion is needed to cover the body of an average-sized adult and achieve the stated SPF.

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 the face, neck and ears. Also apply it to the 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 your 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 is "water-resistant") and after towel drying, sweating or when it may have rubbed off.

Advice for babies and children

Babies younger than six 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
  • spend time in the shade, such as under a tree or umbrella, or in a sun tent (particularly during the middle of the day)
  • use sunscreen (at least SPF15) and reapply it regularly throughout 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.

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The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS Choices.
Last Updated: 18/08/2017 14:44:28