Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Sunburn and sun protection

9-minute read

Key facts

  • Sunburn happens when you are exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
  • To prevent sunburn, you can use sun protection such as sunscreen.
  • If you have a sunburn, you can soothe your symptoms with lotions.
  • Repeated sunburns can lead to wrinkled skin and skin cancer.

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is damage to your skin caused by exposure to sunlight.

Sunburn can develop within 15 minutes in the Australian sun.

What are the symptoms of sunburn?

Sunburn can cause your skin to:

  • become hot and red
  • feel tender and painful
  • blister

Skin that has been sunburnt turns red within hours. The sunburn will continue to develop for the next 1 to 3 days.

If you are sunburnt, you may notice your skin start to peel as your body sheds dead and damaged skin cells. This makes way for new skin underneath.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes sunburn?

Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Too much UV radiation causes sunburn.

UV radiation causes your skin to make more of a pigment called melanin to protect itself. This causes the skin to change colour. When you are exposed to more UV radiation than your skin’s melanin can cope with, you get a sunburn.

You can be exposed to UV radiation from the sun and also from a solarium (tanning bed).

It is also possible to get sunburn while swimming or in the snow. This is usually caused by the sunlight reflecting off the snow, ice or water and burning your skin.

You are most at risk of sunburn if you have fair skin. But anyone can get sunburnt, including people with dark skin.

When should I see a doctor?

You should see your doctor immediately for severe sunburn, or if you have:

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is sunburn diagnosed?

You doctor will examine your skin to diagnose sunburn.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is sunburn treated?

If you have been sunburnt, there are steps you can take to heal and relieve your pain.

If you notice your skin feeling warm or looking pink, take yourself out of the sun.

You can help to soothe the burn by:

  • placing a cool, damp towel on the burn for around 15 minutes
  • taking frequent cool baths or showers
  • applying a moisturising lotion or cream
  • taking pain relief such as ibuprofen to reduce swelling

Moisturisers will also help to reduce peeling skin. Ask your pharmacist which lotions are best for you or your child.

To help your sunburn heal, be sure to:

  • drink plenty of water
  • stay out of the sun until the redness, peeling and pain have disappeared
  • leave any blisters alone, do not break them open or pop them

If sunburn blisters burst open on their own, clean the area with water to avoid infection.

Can sunburn be prevented?

You can prevent sunburn by avoiding exposure to UV radiation. Plan your day to avoid risk of sunburn from too much sun exposure.

Even when it is cool or overcast, you can still be sunburnt. In Australia, UV radiation is highest at midday, when the sun is overhead.

When the 'UV index' is 3 and above, the sun’s rays are strong enough to damage your skin.

You can check the UV levels (called the UV Index) through:

The Bureau of Meteorology will issue a UV alert. If the UV index is 3 or above, you should use sun protection.

iPhone users can download the SunSmart app at the iTunes App Store, and Android users at Google Play.

Sun protection

When you are in the sun, the best way to prevent sunburn is to ‘slip, slop, slap, seek and slide’.

  • Slip on some sun-protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
  • Slop on broad-spectrum, water-resistant SPF30+ sunscreen.
  • Slap on a hat that protects your face, head, neck and ears.
  • Seek some shade.
  • Slide on some sunglasses that meet Australian Standards.
Sun protection infographic: Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide.
View this information in a poster: Sun protection.

How to use sunscreen

To protect against sunburn, you should apply a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30+ or more. If you or your child are prone to sunburn, use a higher SPF.

You should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen meaning it will protect you against different forms of UV rays. Make sure the sunscreen is water-resistant.

Apply it to clean, dry skin at least 20 minutes before you go outside. Then, reapply every 2 hours. You may need to reapply it more often if you are:

  • swimming
  • sweating a lot
  • rubbing yourself dry with a towel

You need at least a teaspoon of sunscreen for:

  • each arm and leg
  • your back
  • your body

You need about half a teaspoon on your face and neck.

Make sure your sunscreen:

  • has not passed its expiry date
  • has not been stored in direct sunlight or hot temperatures such as in a hot car or by the pool

In these conditions, the sunscreen may not work properly.

Complications of sunburn?

If you have been in the sun too long you may develop other problems, such as:

A bad sunburn can get infected.

Repeated sunburns can increase your risk of developing:

  • wrinkled, discoloured skin
  • skin cancer, including melanoma

To prevent skin cancer, it’s particularly important to prevent children getting burnt.

How can I protect my child from sunburn?

Babies and children have more delicate skin than adults and can burn more easily. It’s recommended that you buy sunscreen for children that is for their sensitive skin.

Sunscreen is not recommended for babies under 6 months. The best advice is to keep your baby out of the sun to prevent sunburn, and:

  • make them wear a hat
  • dress them in protective clothing

Does sun protection affect vitamin D levels?

Sensible sun protection does not put people at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Most people get all the vitamin D they need by going about their day-to-day activities.

Resources and support

You can find more information about sunburn and sun safety on the Cancer Council website.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2023

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

ACD A-Z of Skin - Sun Protection & Sunscreens

Sun protection is aimed at reducing excessive exposure to sunlight.

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

Sunburn | National Centre for Farmer Health

Sunburn is when your skin is burned by radiation from the sun. Sunburn can cause permanent skin damage. By the time signs and symptoms of sunburn appear, skin damage has already occurred. Not only will radiation from the sun damage your skin – it can damage your eyes and contribute to the development of cataracts.

Read more on National Centre for Farmer Health website

Sunburn in children and teenagers | Raising Children Network

Sunburn happens when your child’s skin gets too much sun at once. You can prevent sunburn with some simple sun safety precautions. Read more.

Read more on website

About SPF50+ sunscreen | Cancer Council

Read about what SPF50+ really means and what you should do with sunscreen that have a lower protection factor

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Sunscreen FAQs | Cancer Council

From what SPF means and how much you should use to protect yourself, we address some of the most frequently asked questions about sunscreen here

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Sunscreen reactions | Cancer Council

Reactions to sunscreen are rare and can be a result of a sensitivity or allergy to any of the many ingredients. Read more about the reactions here

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Sun protection using sunscreens | ARPANSA

There is well established evidence that exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun can lead to skin cancer

Read more on ARPANSA – Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency website

Sun and heat protection for babies and kids

Babies and children can easily get sunburnt and heatstroke, even when cool or overcast. Read on to learn how to protect your child.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

10 myths about sun protection | Cancer Council

Here are 10 myths about sun protection debunked by the Cancer Council. Find out which are false and which are true here

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Retinoid Creams For Acne - Topical Retinoids - All About Acne

Topical retinoid creams for acne can be help unblock the pores of pimples and prevent new blockages from developing. Here’s how to use them.

Read more on All About Acne website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.