Medically reviewed on August 3, 2018
Sunburn — red, painful skin that feels hot to the touch — usually appears within a few hours after too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from sunshine or artificial sources, such as sunlamps.
Intense, repeated sun exposure that results in sunburn increases your risk of other skin damage and certain diseases. These include dry or wrinkled skin, dark spots, rough spots, and skin cancers, such as melanoma. You can usually find sunburn relief with simply home remedies. Sunburn may take several days or longer to fade.
You can prevent sunburn and related conditions by protecting your skin. This is especially important when you're outdoors, even on cool or cloudy days.
Sunburn signs and symptoms include:
- Pinkness or redness
- Skin that feels warm or hot to the touch
- Pain, tenderness and itching
- Small fluid-filled blisters, which may break
- Headache, fever, nausea and fatigue if the sunburn is severe
Any exposed part of your body — including your earlobes, scalp and lips — can burn. Even covered areas can burn if, for example, your clothing has a loose weave that allows ultraviolet (UV) light through. Your eyes, which are extremely sensitive to the sun's UV light, also can burn. Sunburned eyes may feel painful or gritty.
Signs and symptoms of sunburn usually appear within a few hours after sun exposure. But it may take a day or longer to know the full extent of your sunburn.
Within a few days, your body may start to heal itself by "peeling" the top layer of damaged skin. After peeling, your skin may temporarily have an irregular color and pattern. A bad sunburn may take several days or longer to heal.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if the sunburn:
- Is blistering and covers a large portion of your body
- Is accompanied by a high fever, extreme pain, headache, confusion, nausea or chills
- Doesn't improve within a few days
Also seek medical care if you notice signs or symptoms of an infection. These include:
- Increasing pain and tenderness
- Increasing swelling
- Yellow drainage (pus) from an open blister
- Red streaks leading away from the open blister
Sunburns are caused by exposure to too much ultraviolet (UV) light. UV radiation is a wavelength of sunlight in a range too short for the human eye to see. Ultraviolet A (UVA) is the type of solar radiation most associated with skin aging (photoaging). Ultraviolet B (UVB) is associated with sunburn. Exposure to both types of radiation is associated with developing skin cancer. Sunlamps and tanning beds also produce UV light and can cause sunburn.
Melanin is the dark pigment in the outer layer of skin (epidermis) that gives your skin its normal color. When you're exposed to UV light, your body protects itself by accelerating the production of melanin. The extra melanin creates the darker color of a tan.
A suntan is your body's way of blocking the UV rays to prevent sunburn and other skin damage. But the protection only goes so far. The amount of melanin you produce is determined genetically. Many people simply don't produce enough melanin to protect the skin well. Eventually, UV light causes the skin to burn, bringing pain, redness and swelling.
You can get sunburn on cool, hazy or cloudy days. As much as 80 percent of UV rays pass through clouds. Snow, sand, water and other surfaces can reflect UV rays, burning your skin as severely as direct sunlight.
Melanin is a natural pigment that gives your skin its color. It's produced in cells called melanocytes.
Risk factors for sunburn include:
- Having light skin, blue eyes, and red or blond hair
- Living or vacationing somewhere sunny, warm or at high altitude
- Working outdoors
- Mixing outdoor recreation and drinking alcohol
- Having a history of sunburn
- Regularly exposing unprotected skin to UV light from sunlight or artificial sources, such as tanning beds
- Taking a drug that makes you more likely to burn (photosensitizing medications)
Intense, repeated sun exposure that results in sunburn increases your risk of other skin damage and certain diseases. These include premature aging of your skin (photoaging) and skin cancer.
Premature aging of your skin
Sun exposure and repeated sunburns accelerate the skin's aging process, making you look older than you are. Skin changes caused by UV light are called photoaging. The results of photoaging include:
- Weakening of connective tissues, which reduces the skin's strength and elasticity
- Deep wrinkles
- Dry, rough skin
- Fine red veins on your cheeks, nose and ears
- Freckles, mostly on your face and shoulders
- Dark or discolored spots (macules) on your face, back of hands, arms, chest and upper back — also called solar lentigines (len-TIJ-ih-neze)
Precancerous skin lesions
Precancerous skin lesions appear as rough, scaly patches in areas that have been damaged by the sun. They may be whitish, pink, tan or brown. They're usually found on the sun-exposed areas of the head, face, neck and hands of light-skinned people. These patches can evolve into skin cancer. They're also called actinic keratoses (ak-TIN-ik ker-uh-TOE-seez) and solar keratoses.
Excessive sun exposure, even without sunburn, increases your risk of skin cancer, such as melanoma. It can damage the DNA of skin cells. Sunburns in childhood and adolescence may increase your risk of developing melanoma later in life.
Skin cancer develops mainly on areas of the body most exposed to sunlight, including the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms, hands and legs. Skin cancer on the leg is more common in women than in men.
Some types of skin cancer appear as a small growth or a sore that bleeds easily, crusts over, heals and then reopens. With melanoma, an existing mole may change or a new, suspicious-looking mole may develop. A type of melanoma called lentigo maligna develops in areas of long-term sun exposure. It starts as a tan flat spot that slowly darkens and enlarges.
See your doctor if you notice a new skin growth, a bothersome change in your skin, a change in the appearance or texture of a mole, or a sore that doesn't heal.
The sun can also burn your eyes. Too much UV light damages the retina, lens or cornea. Sun damage to the lens can lead to clouding of the lens (cataracts). Sunburned eyes may feel painful or gritty. Sunburn of the cornea is also called snow blindness.
Use these methods to prevent sunburn, even on cool, cloudy or hazy days. And be extra careful around water, snow and sand because they reflect the sun's rays. In addition, UV light is more intense at high altitudes.
- Avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The sun's rays are strongest during these hours, so try to schedule outdoor activities for other times. If you can't do that, limit the length of time you're in the sun. Seek shade when possible.
- Avoid sun tanning and tanning beds. Using tanning beds to obtain a base tan doesn't decrease your risk of sunburn.
- Cover up. When outside, wear a wide-brimmed hat and clothing that covers you, including your arms and legs. Dark colors offer more protection, as do tightly woven fabrics. Consider using outdoor gear specially designed to provide sun protection. Check the label for its ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), which indicates how effectively a fabric blocks damaging sunlight. The higher the number, the better.
Use sunscreen frequently and generously. Apply water-resistant sunscreen and lip balm with an SPF of 30 or greater and broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays. About 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors, apply sunscreen generously on skin that won't be protected by clothing.
Put on more sunscreen every 40 to 80 minutes, or sooner if it has washed off from swimming or sweating. If you're also using insect repellent, apply the sunscreen first. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend products that combine an insect repellent with a sunscreen.
The Food and Drug Administration requires all sunscreen to retain its original strength for at least three years. Check the sunscreen labels for directions on storing and expiration dates. Throw sunscreen away if it's expired or more than three years old.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using other forms of sun protection, such as shade or clothing, for babies and toddlers. Keep them cool and hydrated. You may use sunscreen on babies and toddlers when sun protective clothing and shade aren't available. The best products for them are those that contain physical blockers (titanium oxide, zinc oxide), as they may cause less skin irritation.
- Wear sunglasses when outdoors. Choose sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection. Check the UV rating on the label when buying new glasses. Darker lenses are not necessarily better at blocking UV rays. It also helps to wear sunglasses that fit close to your face and have wraparound frames that block sunlight from all angles.
- Be aware of medications that increase your sensitivity to the sun. Common drugs that make you more sensitive to sunlight include antihistamines, ibuprofen, certain antibiotics, antidepressants, antipsychotics and some cholesterol-lowering drugs. Talk with your pharmacist about your medication side effects.
Your doctor is likely to conduct a physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms, UV exposure and sunburn history.
If you develop a sunburn or skin reaction after relatively minor exposures to sunlight, your doctor may recommend phototesting. During phototesting, small areas of your skin are exposed to measured amounts of UVA and UVB light to try to reproduce the problem. If your skin reacts to the UV radiation, you're considered sensitive to sunlight (photosensitive).
If you've been sunburned, it may take two days for the severity of your burn to become evident, and several more days for your skin to begin to heal. Sunburn treatment doesn't heal your skin, but it can offer relief by reducing pain, swelling and discomfort. If at-home care doesn't help or your sunburn is very severe, your doctor may offer additional treatments for sunburn relief.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Once sunburn occurs, you can't do much to limit damage to your skin. But the following tips may reduce your pain and discomfort:
- Take a pain reliever. If needed, an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve) may help control the pain and swelling of sunburn, especially if you take it soon after sun exposure. Some types of pain relievers may be applied to your skin as gels.
- Cool the skin. Apply to the affected skin a clean towel dampened with cool tap water. Or take a cool bath.
- Apply a moisturizer, lotion or gel. An aloe vera lotion or gel or calamine lotion may be soothing.
- Drink water to prevent dehydration.
- Leave small blisters alone. Don't break them if they are smaller than your little fingernail. If a blister does break, clean it with mild soap and water. Then use an antibiotic ointment on the wound and cover it with a nonstick bandage. If you develop a rash at the site, stop using the ointment and see a doctor.
- Treat peeling skin gently. Within a few days, the affected area may begin to peel. This is your body's way of getting rid of the top layer of damaged skin. While your skin is peeling, continue to moisturize.
- For severe sunburn, try an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, which may ease the discomfort.
- Protect your sunburn from further sun exposure. Stay out of the sun, or protect yourself from sunlight when you go outside.
Avoid applying '-caine' products, such as benzocaine. Such creams may irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction. Benzocaine has been linked to a rare but potentially deadly condition that decreases the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry (methemoglobinemia).
Don't use benzocaine in children younger than age 2 without supervision from a health care professional. If you're an adult, never use more than the recommended dose and consider talking with your doctor before using it.
Preparing for an appointment
Most sunburns heal fine on their own. But you may seek treatment if you have severe or repeated sunburn. You're likely to first see your primary care doctor. Before you go to your appointment, list the medications you're taking — including vitamins, herbs and over-the-counter drugs. Some drugs increase your sensitivity to UV light.
Questions to ask your doctor about sunburn include:
- Can I use over-the-counter medications to treat the condition, or do I need a prescription?
- How soon after I begin treatment can I expect improvement?
- What skin care routines do you recommend while the sunburn heals?
- What suspicious changes in my skin might I watch for?
If your sunburn is severe or your doctor notices any skin abnormalities, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in skin diseases (dermatologist) for further evaluation.