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Sunburn and sun protection

6-minute read

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is damage to the skin caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Too much UV radiation causes the skin to become hot, red and painful.

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

Most people who have been sunburnt also peel, which is the body’s way of shedding dead and damaged skin cells and making way for the new skin underneath.

How is sunburn caused?

UV radiation causes the skin to make more of a pigment called melanin to protect itself. This causes the skin to change colour. When there is more 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 the skin.

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

How is sunburn treated?

Here is what to do if you have been sunburnt.

  • To ease the pain, take a cool or lukewarm bath or shower.
  • Use paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Leave any blisters alone, do not break them open or pop them. If they open on their own, clean the area with water to keep it clean and avoid infection.
  • You can buy an ointment or cream to soothe sunburn. Do not use them on young children as they can cause skin irritation.
  • Give your skin the time it needs to repair and build up another protective barrier of cells. Stay out of the direct sun until the redness, peeling and pain have disappeared.

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

When should I see a doctor?

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

  • blisters that break open or that are filled with murky fluid
  • fever
  • headaches
  • nausea or vomiting
  • dizziness
  • severe pain that cannot be controlled with painkillers
  • swelling or if the area looks infected

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

What are the complications of sunburn?

If you have been in the sun too long, you may develop heatstroke or dehydration. A bad sunburn can get infected.

Long term, sunburn increases your risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma. To prevent skin cancer, it’s particularly important to prevent children getting burnt.

A lot of sunburns can make your skin age and get wrinkly.

Can sunburn be prevented?

You can prevent sunburn by avoiding exposure to UV radiation. Even when it is cool or overcast, you can still be exposed. The best advice is to stay out of the sun between 9am and 4pm, depending on the time of year and where you are in Australia.

You can also check the UV levels (called the UV Index), whatever the weather. When the 'UV index' is 3 and above, the sun’s rays are strong enough to damage your skin and a UV Alert is issued by the Bureau of Meteorology and you should use sun protection.

The UV Alert is reported on the weather page of all Australian daily newspapers, on the Bureau of Meteorology website and on some radio and mobile weather forecasts.

You can also check the UV Alert for cities and towns across Australia with this SunSmart UV widget, developed by Cancer Council Australia. Select your location and find out if sun protection is required.

For smartphone users, Cancer Council Australia’s free SunSmart app is a great way to check the UV Alert when you are out and about. iPhone users can download it 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 which is broad-brimmed or legionnaire-style to protect your face, head, neck and ears.
  • Seek some shade.
  • Slide on some sunglasses, making sure they meet Australian Standards.

How to use sunscreen

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

You should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, meaning it will protect you against different forms of UV rays (UVA, UVB and UVC). Make sure the sunscreen is water-resistant.

Apply it to clean, dry skin at least 20 minutes before you go outside, and then reapply every 2 hours. You may need to reapply it more often if you are swimming, sweating a lot or rubbing yourself dry with a towel.

You need at least a teaspoon of sunscreen for each arm and leg, your back and your body. You need about half a teaspoon on your face and neck.

Make sure your sunscreen has not passed its expiry date and has not been stored in direct sunlight or hot temperatures such as in a hot car or by the pool, as then it may not work properly.

How to protect babies and children

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

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

What about vitamin D?

Sensible sun protection does not put people at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Most people can get all the vitamin D they need by going about their day-to-day activities. You just need a few minutes of sunlight on your skin early in the morning or later in the afternoon, when the UV levels are at their lowest.

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

Last reviewed: August 2021

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