The sun gives off rays of light that are absorbed by the outer layer of the skin, but too much exposure to these rays can be harmful. Tanning, burning, and peeling is how the body acts to protect the skin and repair the damage.
Sunburn can be painful and unsightly, but it does not last forever. How long sunburn lasts will depend on how severe it is and on certain risk factors.
Sunburn can be serious and always causes damage to the skin, so it is vital that a person protects their skin from the sun. If someone does get burned, there are several ways to lessen the discomfort and to look after the skin as it heals.
What is sunburn?
Sunburn may be painful and too much sun exposure can be harmful.
Sunburn is the skin's response to ultraviolet (UV) light damage. Symptoms vary from redness as the body sends blood into small veins near the skin, to peeling when the skin gets rid of dead and damaged skin cells.
Someone does not need to be out in the sun for a long time to get sunburned, and people can burn even on an overcast day.
UV radiation from the sun may be invisible to the naked eye, but UVA and UVB rays have a visible impact when the skin tans and burns.
UVA rays are long wave light. Although they are less intense than UVB rays, they penetrate the skin deeper and can cause damage over time.
UVB rays do not penetrate the skin as deeply, damaging the cells closer to the surface to turn it red and cause a sunburn.
Read on to find out more about the damage that sunburn does to the skin, how long it might last, and how to ease the symptoms.
How long does sunburn last?
People may not realize immediately that they have sunburn, as symptoms usually start around 4 hours after the skin is exposed to the sun.
Sunburn is a sign that the body is trying to repair damaged skin, and this can take time. How long it lasts will depend on how severe the sunburn is:
- Mild sunburn will continue for approximately 3 days.
- Moderate sunburn lasts for around 5 days and is often followed by peeling skin.
- Severe sunburn can last for more than a week, and the affected person may need to seek medical advice.
The immediate symptoms of the skin feeling hot, looking red, and feeling sore, will usually worsen 24–36 hours after exposure to the sun.
Pain is often at its worst 6–48 hours after burning.
If the skin is going to peel, it will usually start to happen 3–8 days after sun exposure.
Although the immediate effects of sunburn should heal within days or weeks, the damage can have a much longer-lasting impact.
UVA and UVB rays can also affect the appearance of the skin, causing aging, wrinkles, and brown age spots.
Sunburn risk factors
Having freckles and red hair, a family history of skin cancer, and having very pale skin may be risk factors for sunburn.
Everyone can be at risk of sunburn, no matter how dark or light their skin tone. However, there are certain risk factors that might make someone more likely to burn. These include:
- having very pale skin
- having freckles or red hair
- skin problems relating to a medical condition, such as psoriasis
- taking medication that makes skin more sensitive to sun
- a family history of skin cancer
- having a number of moles
- being in a hot country or at a high altitude where the sun is more intense
Children's skin needs greater protection from the sun. Babies under the age of 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight.
When to see a doctor
Someone should seek medical advice if they have burned a large area of the skin on their body, feel unwell, or have any of the following symptoms:
- a high fever
- severe burns on more than 15 percent of the body
- extreme pain that lasts more than a day
- signs of infection in blisters, such as swelling, redness, or warmth
- symptoms of heat exhaustion, such as nausea, vomiting, or a fast, weak pulse
Severe sunburn can sometimes require treatment in a hospital, the application of a special burn creams, or being covered with a dressing.
Sunburn cannot be cured, as the skin has been damaged and will have to heal itself. However, there are some ways to ease the discomfort of sunburn and help the skin to repair.
As soon as someone notices that they have sunburn, or they are starting to burn, they should get out of the sun and begin treatment to combat the sun's effects.
A cool bath or shower, or gently applying a cool, wet cloth to the sunburn, can help to relieve some of the discomfort and begin to take the heat out of the skin.
Drinking extra water can help prevent dehydration, which may result from the body directing more fluid to the skin to help repair the damage that has been done.
Applying a moisturizer can soothe the skin and prevent it from drying out. People should choose one that has aloe vera or soy in, and that does not contain alcohol. If the sunburn is particularly bad, an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream may help.
Pain relief, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can help to reduce swelling and discomfort.
If the sunburn is severe, blisters may form on the skin to help it to heal and to prevent infection. People should not pop blisters. If they do break, they should be kept clean and covered with a light dressing.
Skin often peels following a sunburn, as the body gets rid of dead and damaged cells, a process that can last for several days. Those with sunburn should never pull off the skin, but allow it to come off naturally.
People should also protect burned and peeling skin when outside, by wearing tightly woven clothing that will not let too much sun through.
To prevent sunburn it is recommended to apply sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or above and avoid the sun when its rays are strongest.
The American Skin Association advises that people stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when its rays are strongest and UV exposure is greatest.
It is possible also to get burned on a cloudy day. Sunlight reflecting off water or snow can burn, too, so people should take care when skiing or sailing.
Applying sunscreen is a necessary step in the prevention of sunburn, but there are some key points to be aware of to make sure it is effective.
People should be sure to do the following:
- choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or above
- make sure their sunscreen is within date
- apply enough with most adults needing an ounce, or roughly the amount that fits in the palm
- choose a sunscreen that is water-resistant
- choose a sunscreen that protects from both UVA and UVB rays
- apply 20–30 minutes before going into the sun, to give it time to be absorbed
- remember areas of the body that are easily missed, such as the tops of the ears
- use a lip balm with an SPF of 15 or above
- reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours to remain protected
- reapply after swimming, sweating a lot, or if the sunscreen has rubbed off
Wear long-sleeved, loose clothing that is tightly woven so that it does not let much sun through. Also, wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect the head and neck from burning.
Sunburn is not only uncomfortable and unsightly. It can have a long-lasting impact on health and skin appearance and increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
Protecting skin from the sun by staying in the shade, during the hottest part of the day, using sunscreen, and wearing protective clothing, can all help to prevent sunburn and the long-term damage it can do.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that everyone examine their skin monthly to keep an eye out for the early signs of skin cancer, such as a mole that changes color or shape. The good news is that if it is found early, skin cancer is usually easy to treat and cure.