Your Guide to Sunburn: Signs, Causes, and Relief

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Spending time outside is healthy and fun, especially when the weather is nice. But the itchy, red, painful skin you can get after enjoying the outdoors is anything but fun, and it can be more serious than it appears.

What is a sunburn, actually?

Sunburn is your body’s reaction to the damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation that comes from the sun or artificial light sources like the lamps used in tanning beds.

The main symptoms of sunburn are redness and pain, often accompanied by swelling, itching, and sometimes even blistering and sores.
Even worse, sunburns cause long-term skin damage that accumulates if you get burned more than once. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a history of five or more sunburns doubles your risk of developing melanoma, a potentially deadly kind of skin cancer.

Does sunburn turn into a tan?

While many people want to have tan skin, it’s just another sign of skin damage. A tan appears when your body tries to protect itself from UV radiation by increasing the production of melanin, a dark pigment.

Yes, sunburn can turn into a tan, but there’s no guarantee that it will. It largely depends on your skin type. If you have very light skin, you probably won’t get a tan, no matter how hard you try.

Even if your skin is capable of tanning, there’s no completely safe way to do it.

Suntan, no matter how attractive you find it, is a sign of skin damage that can lead to premature skin aging and increase the risk of cancer.

If you really want your skin to look darker, try UV-free options like self-tanning sprays or lotions. They contain an ingredient called dihydroxyacetone (often listed on the bottle as DHA). This ingredient interacts with dead cells on the skin’s surface and darkens the skin temporarily.

What causes sunburn?

Unlike the burn you get when you touch a hot stove, sunburn is a radiation burn. It’s caused by UV rays, not the sun’s heat. This is why you can get a sunburn on a cold and cloudy day, too.

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The sun emits three kinds of ultraviolet rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. You don’t have to worry about UVC rays because they don’t reach the Earth’s surface. But both UVA and UVB rays can damage your skin by altering the DNA of your skin cells.

An old man sitting on the beach with a sunburn

The damage caused by UVA rays is associated with premature skin aging. These rays maintain the same strength throughout the year, so you’re exposed to them no matter what the weather is like. 

UVB rays can cause serious burns and direct damage to the DNA of your skin cells. Scientists believe that UVB rays are responsible for most skin cancers.

The sun isn’t the only source of UV radiation. Tanning beds, welding arcs, and xenon arc lamps also emit UV rays.

Signs of sunburn

The first signs of sunburn are redness and pain. They can be accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Itching
  • Peeling of the skin
  • Fever

Degrees of sunburn 

To describe the intensity of a sunburn, medical professionals refer to it as a first-degree or second-degree sunburn.

A first-degree sunburn only affects the outer layer of the skin. Its symptoms include:

  • Redness
  • Pain
  • A feeling of warmth
  • Swelling
  • Peeling skin several days after sun exposure

First-degree burns usually heal by themselves within a week. However, you should see a doctor if the sunburn covers a large area of your body; becomes infected; or if you have a fever, chills, or headaches.

Second-degree sunburns are deeper. They penetrate the outer layer of the skin and damage the layer under it. You can recognize a second-degree sunburn by:

  • A deep red color
  • Widespread swelling and blistering
  • White discoloration
  • Skin that looks shiny and wet
  • Intense pain

Second-degree sunburns can take weeks to heal and should be treated by medical professionals. In severe cases, people with second-degree sunburns may need to be treated in a hospital.

How to prevent sunburn: safety tips

Sunburns damage your skin, making it age faster and increasing the risk of potentially deadly cancers. Fortunately, they’re easy to prevent. 

Never forget your sunscreen

Many people think that you can only get a sunburn on a hot and sunny day. However, both UVA and UVB rays can penetrate clouds and damage your skin even if the sky is overcast.

This is why sunscreen is a must. Look for products with a high sun protection factor (SPF) and broad-spectrum protection. This will ensure that you’re protected against both UVA and UVB rays.

Reapply sunscreen every two hours or even more frequently if you’re in the water or sweating a lot. 

It’s also possible to get sunburn on your lips, so consider applying a lip balm with a high SPF when going outside.

Of course, no sunscreen can block UV radiation completely. This is why it’s also important to use other methods of preventing sunburn.

For some people, sunscreen can cause skin irritation. Fortunately, there are quite a few other ways to protect yourself from the sun.

Cover your skin and eyes

While many people love showing some skin in the summer months, remember that any exposed skin is vulnerable to sun damage. Long sleeves, long pants or skirts, and wide-brimmed hats are your best friends when it comes to protecting yourself from UV rays.

A smiling woman applying sunscreen to prevent sunburn

You can also find sun-protective clothes that offer additional protection against UV radiation. They are densely woven and made of fibers that absorb or reflect UV rays. Some high-tech fabrics are also treated with chemical UV absorbers.

Sunburn can affect your eyes, too. This is not just uncomfortable; too much exposure to UV radiation can increase your risk of developing eye diseases like cataracts or eyelid cancer. This is why you should wear high-quality sunglasses that will protect your eyes. As an added bonus, sunglasses or a hat can also prevent the delicate skin around your eyes from aging prematurely.

Stay in the shade

If you can, stay in shaded areas. You’ll still be exposed to UV radiation but to a lesser degree. Also, staying in the shade can reduce the risk of overheating your body and ending up with heat exhaustion (or, even worse, heatstroke).

Of course, you can’t always move into a shaded area, especially if you work or practice sports outdoors. In this case, make sure you remember your sunscreen and protective clothing.

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Avoid tanning (or opt for UV-free tanners)

There’s no safe way to get a suntan, especially if your skin is very light and burns easily. It’s best to avoid tanning entirely. Tanning beds are not safer than staying in the sun.

If you really want to look tanned, look for self-tanning products.

Be aware of your medications

There are many medications that can make your skin more prone to sunburn. Some of them are:

  • Acne treatments that contain isotretinoin
  • Some antibiotics
  • Certain types of antidepressants
  • Diuretics (medications that make your kidneys produce more urine)
  • Oral contraceptives
  • Some allergy medications

If you take any medications, check the patient information leaflets for information on whether sun sensitivity is a known side effect. If you’re in doubt, talk to your health care provider. Don’t stop taking your medication without your doctor’s say-so.

If you’re at an increased risk of sunburn because of your medications, be sure to practice the sunburn prevention tips we’ve just mentioned.

Sunburn relief

The DNA damage caused by a sunburn can’t be reversed. However, there are some helpful ways to reduce pain and discomfort as the burn is healing.

Take a painkiller

To reduce swelling and soothe pain, you can take an over-the-counter painkiller like aspirin, ibuprofen, or paracetamol (your doctor can help you identify which painkiller is best for you).

Cool and moisturize the affected area

Use cold compresses or take cold baths to soothe the skin. Avoid putting ice or oils directly on the burnt skin. 

After taking a cold bath or shower, pat yourself dry while leaving a little water on the skin’s surface. Then apply a moisturizer, preferably one that contains aloe. Moisturizers contain ingredients that will trap the water you’ve left on the skin. This will help reduce dryness and irritation.

Leave the blisters alone

If you develop blisters, resist the temptation to open them. You won’t speed up the healing process and you might infect your skin.

Rehydrate your body

Burns can dehydrate you. While your sunburn is healing, drink more fluids and eat more vegetables and fruit with a high water content.

Stay out of the sun

Your skin is already damaged by the sun, so avoid exposing it to further damage. Try to stay out of the sun and cover sunburnt skin with densely woven clothing when going outside.

How long does it take for a sunburn to heal?

First-degree sunburns usually heal within a week (sometimes as little as three days), while second-degree sunburns can take much longer.

If the sunburn is severe enough to make the skin peel, this will happen three to eight days after sun exposure. When your skin begins to peel, it means that your body is actively getting rid of damaged cells. While it may be tempting to exfoliate a healing sunburn in order to remove the dead skin faster, this is not a good idea. The peeling will stop by itself when the sunburn has healed.

If your sunburn doesn’t heal within a few days, be sure to seek medical advice.

Key takeaways

Sunburns are radiation burns caused by ultraviolet rays. Sunburns can inflict permanent damage to the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer, so it’s critical that you protect yourself.

To prevent sunburns, use sunscreen and cover your skin with protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses. If you still get sunburned, avoid further sun exposure and soothe the burn with cool compresses and moisturizers.

January 16, 2023