12th July, 202212 min read

Sunburn relief: what works plus how to avoid sun damage

Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

We’ve all been there. Maybe you’ve got a red neck and shoulders following an afternoon at a friend’s BBQ. Or you scrimped on sunscreen on your beach holiday because you were hoping for a bit of a tan – and now you’re paying for it with pink, peeling skin. Yes, we’re talking sunburn.

While the occasional bout of sunburn might not feel like much to worry about, sunburn is a sign that your skin is damaged and it’s your body’s way of trying to repair that damage. And while the lobster phase of sunburn usually passes within a week, there are longer-term health consequences you need to know about. The good news? It’s never too late to change habits and stop sunburn for good, plus there are plenty of ways to get sunburn relief.

What are the long-term effects of sunburn?

Increased risk of skin cancer

This is particularly the case if you get sunburned regularly or if you got sunburned as a child. One blistering sunburn doubles your risk of getting skin cancer. Getting sunburned once every two years triples your chances of getting melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

That’s not to say that you’ll definitely get skin cancer if you get sunburned – and there are other things that can also increase your risk, like someone else in your family with skin cancer – but the more times it happens the higher your risk for melanoma.

Other long-term effects of sunburn

Sunburn can also increase your risk of getting other health problems, such as:

  • wrinkles and premature ageing
  • brown spots and freckles
  • actinic keratoses – scaly spots of skin that can lead to a type of skin cancer called
    squamous cell carcinoma
    (SCC)

People who get sunburned a lot can also be at higher risk of getting cataracts which can cause trouble with your eyesight.

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is skin damage caused by being in the sun for too long. The sun gives off ultraviolet (UV) rays and too much exposure to this UV light can make your skin hot, red, painful and sometimes itchy.

You can also get sunburn from other sources of UV light, including:

  • tanning beds
  • phototherapy lamps – used in light therapy to treat conditions like psoriasis

You can get sunburn anywhere on your face and body, including your scalp, ears and lips. How bad your sunburn is can vary depending on your skin type and how long you’re exposed to UV rays. Most cases are a 1st degree burn, which means your skin turns pink or red. More serious cases can be a 2nd degree burn, where the skin blisters. Sunburn only very rarely causes a third-degree burn or scarring.

How long does sunburn last?

It can be really easy to get sunburned, as the symptoms don’t usually come on for several hours after sun exposure. Sunburn generally starts to get better after a few days, when it starts to flake and peel off. Mild sunburn will usually completely go away after a week, but in more severe cases sunburn can take a few weeks to heal.

Who is at risk of sunburn?

Everybody is at risk of getting sunburn, but it’s more likely to happen in some people than others. You should be extra careful in the sun if:

  • you have a family history of skin cancer or you’ve had skin cancer
  • you’ve been sunburned in the past
  • you have skin that burns easily
  • you have light or fair coloured skin, hair or eyes
  • your skin has lots of moles or freckles
  • you live in or travel to hot and sunny countries
  • you live at, or travel to, high altitude – for every 300m increase in elevation above sea level, UV radiation goes up by 4%

Did you know that certain conditions and medications can make your skin more sensitive to the sun? Read more here about

photosensitivity
.

Mild sunburn – what are the symptoms of 1st degree sunburn?

Most sunburn is mild and is known as 1st-degree sunburn. The symptoms can include:

  • skin that turns red, pink or even purple in some cases.
  • tenderness
  • irritation and itching
  • skin that feels warm or hot when touched
  • pain
  • swelling

These symptoms usually come on between 2 and 6 hours after you’ve been exposed to UV rays, but your skin might keep changing colour for up to 72 hours.

If you have darker skin, sunburn might feel tender or itchy, rather than your skin changing colour

There isn’t usually any blistering with mild sunburn. Your skin might start to peel and flake off after a few days, and get better within about a week.

Severe sunburn – 2nd degree sunburn

Although most cases of sunburn are a 1st-degree burn, severe sunburn can develop if you’re exposed to UV rays for long enough. This causes a 2nd-degree burn.

Symptoms of 2nd-degree sunburn can include:

  • blisters – these can be filled with fluid and might break or pop
  • swelling of the skin
  • fever
  • chills
  • headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness (these can be signs of
    heat exhaustion
    )

If you have 2nd degree sunburn, you may also feel very thirsty (dehydrated), especially if you’ve been sick.

It’s very rare to get 3rd degree sunburn – if this happens, nerve endings may become damaged which can actually make it painless in parts, but you would need urgent medical help.

7 of the biggest sunburn myths

Myth 1: Dark skin doesn’t need sunscreen

If you have darker skin you’re at lower risk of sunburn and, therefore, skin cancer. This is because darker skin cells produce more melanin, the pigment that gives your skin colour and protects it from the sun. People with the darkest skin have the most melanin, which means they’re generally better protected.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t get sunburned and you still need to wear sunscreen – sunburn can affect everybody, it’s just more likely with lighter skin tones. Sunburn can also be harder to see if you have dark or brown skin – it might feel itchy or tender rather than changing colour. And skin cancer can still be a risk, whatever your skin colour.

Myth 2: You can’t get sunburned in the shade

Alas, shade alone isn’t a total sunburn saviour. While it does offer some protection, UV rays reflect off surfaces even in shaded areas – and this can still cause sunburn. Think of lying under an umbrella on the beach. You’re getting less direct UV radiation but the sand around you is reflecting the sun’s rays. The bottom line? Consider shade to be just one part of your overall sun protection strategy that also includes sunscreen, clothing, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat.

Myth 3: Sunburn turns into a tan

It all depends on your skin type – if you have very pale skin that always burns and never tans then your sunburn isn’t going to morph into a sunkissed glow. But even if your skin does tan, that isn’t a good thing. Because there’s no such thing as safe tanning – the increase in melanin, which causes your skin to tan, is a sign of damage.

Myth 4: It’s OK to pop a sunburn blister

Blistering is a sign of a 2nd-degree sunburn. You should avoid popping the blisters – they are there to help your skin to heal and to prevent infection.

Myth 5: You can’t get sunburn on a cloudy day

Lots of people think sunburn is only possible in bright sunshine, but a high percentage of UV rays can still reach you on cloudy days. UV rays can also be reflected off snow, sand and water which can increase your risk of sunburn, even in shaded areas.

Myth 6: If you’re wearing high SPF there’s no need to reapply it

Ever slathered on sun protection factor (SPF) 30+ before a day in the sun and thought it will see you through the entire day? Once isn’t enough. It’s really important to reapply sunscreen every two hours as the SPF can stop working after a while and it can rub off through sweating or thanks to your clothes. You’ll need to reapply sooner if you’ve been for a dip in the pool or sea, even if your sunscreen is labelled ‘water resistant’.

Myth 7: You can’t get sun damage through glass

While UVB rays can’t get through glass, Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays can – these types of rays are associated more with skin ageing than burning. So if you’re in a car on a sunny day, or you’re sitting in a room with strong sunlight pouring through big windows, then it’s wise to protect yourself with sunscreen with a high UVA rating (look for 4 or 5 stars in the UK) and clothing.

Read more about

how to apply sunscreen and avoid sunburn
.

How can your pharmacist help relieve sunburn?

Sunburn can be painful. Your pharmacist can advise you on the best treatments for you, which might include aftersun products or pain-relieving medicine. Sunburn can also be itchy as your skin starts to heal so you might want to get an over-the-counter antihistamine such as cetirizine hydrochloride to help you stop scratching.

When to see a doctor about your sunburn

Your pharmacist can also advise whether you might need to see a doctor about your sunburn. You should also see your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • blisters or bad swelling of your skin or a large area on your body of swelling or blisters (try not to scratch or pop them)
  • severe pain that doesn’t go away after trying to treat it yourself
  • pain, warmth or redness that gets worse after day 2 of your sunburn, or any oozing pus or red streaks (this could be a sign of infection)
  • a fever
  • feeling very tired, dizzy, confused or sick
  • a very bad headache and muscle cramps
  • a rash that looks different from sunburn or you’re not sure about

If you've had a lot of sun exposure you could also be at risk of

heat exhaustion or heatstroke
. Heatstroke needs emergency medical attention so see a doctor immediately.

Self care tips for sunburn relief

Sunburn can be extremely painful, but there are lots of ways you can help relieve your symptoms at home:

  • clean the sunburned area with cool water and plain soap
  • make a cold compress with a damp towel or flannel to help relieve any pain
  • moisturise your skin to help stop it drying out. Avoid using a moisturiser that’s perfumed, as this could irritate your skin
  • have cool baths or showers, sponge your skin carefully and make sure to pat your skin dry, rather than rubbing it
  • drink extra water to cool you down and stop you becoming dehydrated
  • take painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to help with any pain (children under 16 shouldn’t take aspirin)

You should try to avoid direct sunlight until your skin has healed completely. If you do need to go outside, stay in the shade when the sun is at its strongest (between 11am and 3pm in the UK), make sure your skin is covered completely, ideally in fabrics that are tightly-woven (when you hold them up to a bright light, it shouldn’t shine through).

Sleeping with sunburn can be tricky. Top tips to help you nod off include:

  • have a cool bath or shower before bed, or use a cold compress to cool your skin down
  • wear clothes that are loose and breathable (cotton is best)
  • taking painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, can help with any pain (children under 16 shouldn’t take aspirin)

Natural remedies for sunburn

There are a few natural remedies used to help with sunburn – some of them have more evidence to support their effectiveness than others.

Natural treatments that have been used include:

  • aloe vera – the most well-known natural remedy for sunburn, there’s good evidence that using an aloe-vera based gel or lotion can help soothe and cool your skin
  • oatmeal – colloidal oatmeal baths are said to calm down red and inflamed skin. Research has also found that some of the compounds of oatmeal absorb UV rays, which could make it ideal for sunburn aftercare
  • green tea – it is believed that a compound found in green tea could help with skin damage caused by sunburn. Green tea is thought to be anti-inflammatory but there’s not much scientific basis for it helping with sunburn yet
  • chamomile – chamomile tea has also long been used as a home remedy for mild sunburn, in the same way as green tea
  • honey – studies have shown that honey, particularly Manuka honey from New Zealand, has antibacterial properties that can help with burn healing

What’s the treatment for severe sunburn?

If you go to your doctor about your sunburn, they might recommend a steroid cream or if it’s very severe, they may prescribe an oral steroid to use for a few days to help bring down any swelling. They also may prescribe antibiotic ointment and suggest special non–stick bandages to help prevent infection.

If you have severe sunburn, your doctor may dress the affected area in bandages, or refer you to a burns specialist.

Your question answered

Can a supplement protect my skin from burning?

“Did you know that two oral supplements, polypodium leucotomos – a natural tropical fern extract – and nicotinamide, which is a type of vitamin B3, can give you some protection against the damaging effects of sunlight? But you should never use them in place of sunscreen, shade and clothing.” –

Dr Ann Nainan, Healthily doctor

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.