Sunburn is damage to the skin caused by exposure to the sun’s rays. The rays that cause the damage are UV (ultraviolet). UV is a form of radiation. Too much UV light causes the skin to become hot, red and painful.
All people are at risk of sunburn regardless of race or skin colour. Very young children can get serious sunburn in less than 30 minutes.
You should see your doctor immediately for severe sunburn, or if you are experiencing blistering, headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness or severe pain.
Whatever the weather
UV radiation is a potential health threat that you can’t see or feel. It can be high, even on cool and overcast days, which means you can't rely on clear skies or high temperatures to determine when you need to protect yourself from the sun. Most weather services in Australia provide a daily UV intensity rating because it's not possible to judge from other weather variables.
It's 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 should also check the UV index. When it is three or above, 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 at www.bom.gov.au/uv and on some radio and mobile weather forecasts.
You can also check the UV Alert for cities and towns across Australia with the widget on Cancer Council Australia’s website at www.cancer.org.au.
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, Android users at Google Play and Samsung users at Samsung Apps.
Are children more at risk of sunburn?
Exposure to UV radiation in childhood can greatly increase a child's risk of developing skin cancer later in life. Cancer Council Australia encourages parents and carers of children to take an active role in protecting children's skin by remembering to ‘Slip, slop, slap, seek, slide’.
Correct sun protection practices not only reduce a child’s risk of skin and eye damage, but also ensure they obtain enough vitamin D from sunlight in their skin to allow for healthy bone development and maintenance.
Young skin is also delicate and very easily damaged by the sun. Sunscreen formulas that are specifically for children are recommended for their sensitive skin. Cancer Council Australia recommends keeping babies out of the sun as much as possible for the first 12 months and ensuring they wear a hat, protective clothing and sunglasses, and stay in the shade.
Should I cover up my mole and freckles when I’m in the sun?
If you have lots of moles or freckles you're more likely to develop skin cancer, so you need to take extra care. Protect your body with sunscreen, protective clothing, a hat, sunglasses and shade when you’re out in the sun. Keep an eye out for changes to your skin and report these to your doctor. Cancer Council Australia provides advice on how to check your skin on their website at www.cancer.org.au.
If I don’t get any sun, will I become vitamin D deficient?
Sensible sun protection does not put people at risk of vitamin D deficiency. For most people, adequate vitamin D levels are reached through regular daily activity and incidental exposure to the sun.
During summer, the majority of people can maintain adequate vitamin D levels from a few minutes of exposure to sunlight on their face, arms and hands or the equivalent area of skin on either side of the peak UV periods (10am to 3pm) on most days of the week.
In winter, in the southern parts of Australia, where UV radiation levels are less intense, people may need about two to three hours of sunlight to the face, arms and hands, or equivalent area of skin, spread over a week to maintain adequate vitamin D levels. In winter, in northern parts of Australia, people will continue to maintain adequate vitamin D levels going about their day-to-day activities, so it's not necessary to deliberately seek UV radiation exposure.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your sunburn, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Last reviewed: July 2015