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.

Sunscreen being applied.

Sunscreen being applied.
beginning of content

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 — and 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'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 are most at risk of sunburn if you have fair skin. But all people can get sunburn, including people with dark skin.

How is sunburn treated?

If you have been sunburnt:

  • 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.
  • To ease the pain of sunburn, take a cool or lukewarm bath or shower.
  • 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. Don’t use them on young children as they can cause skin irritation.
  • Use paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Drink plenty of water.

Can sunburn be prevented?

You can prevent sunburn by avoiding exposure to UV radiation. Even when it’s 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 and on some radio and mobile weather forecasts.

You can also check the UV Alert for cities and towns across Australia with this SunSmart 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 hasn’t 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.

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 can’t be controlled with painkillers
  • swelling or if the area looks infected

Are there 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.

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.

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).

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

Last reviewed: August 2019


Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

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 - Better Health Channel

Even mild sunburn can cause permanent skin damage and may increase your risk of skin cancer.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Sunburn - myDr.com.au

Skin of any colour can be damaged by the sun. Sunburn occurs more slowly than other types of burns.Physical sunscreens are usually a better choice for people who have had allergic reactions to c

Read more on myDr website

Sunburn in children and teenagers | Raising Children Network

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

Read more on raisingchildren.net.au website

Kids' Health - Topics - Sunburn

In Australia, people like you have grown up with the slogan,Slip on sun protective clothing, slop on the sunscreen, slap on a hat

Read more on Women's and Children's Health Network website

Eyes - flash burns - Better Health Channel

Flash burns are like sunburn in the eye and can affect both your eyes. Find out more.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Sun care options - myDr.com.au

Sunburn and skin damage are caused by too much exposure of your skin to UV radiation, from the sun or a sunlamp. Find out what products are available for sun care.

Read more on myDr website

What is UV? - SunSmart

UV radiation from the sun cannot be seen or felt so it can damage our skin without us knowing. Health effects from too much UV include sunburn, photosensitivity, premature ageing and eye damage.

Read more on Cancer Council Victoria website

Sunscreens | Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA)

Sunscreens contain substances that either absorb or reflect the sun's UV rays and prevent most of it from penetrating the skin and damaging skin cells.

Read more on TGA – Therapeutic Goods Administration website

Staying safe in the Australian sun

Protecting your baby's skin from an early age will help reduce their risk of skin damage later in life. Learn more about staying safe in the Australian sun.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby 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 Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo