Health A to Z
Sunburn is skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays.
The skin becomes red, warm, sore and tender. It may start to flake and peel after a few days, and will usually fully heal within 7 days.
Sunburn is usually mild and short-lived, but it's important to try to avoid it because it can increase your risk of developing skin problems in later life, such as ageing (wrinkling) and skin cancer.
It can be easy to underestimate the strength of the sun when you're outside. The wind and getting wet, such as going in and out of the sea, may cool your skin, so you don't realise you're getting burnt.
You should always be aware of the risk of sunburn if you're outside in strong sunshine, and look out for your skin getting hot.
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If you or your child has sunburn, you should get out of the sun as soon as possible – head indoors or into a shady area.
You can usually treat mild sunburn at home, although there are some circumstances where you should get medical advice.
To help relieve your symptoms until your skin heals:
Try to avoid all sunlight, including through windows, by covering up the affected areas of skin until it's fully healed.
Contact your GP, go to your nearest NHS walk-in centre, or call NHS 111 if you feel unwell or you're concerned about your sunburn, particularly if you're burnt over a large area or have any of the more severe symptoms listed below.
You should also see your GP if a young child or baby has sunburn as their skin is particularly sensitive.
Signs of severe sunburn can include:
Special burn cream and burn dressings may be needed for severe sunburn. These are available from your GP or nurse at your GP surgery. Treatment in hospital may occasionally be needed.
Everyone who's exposed to UV light is at risk of getting sunburn, but some people are more vulnerable than others.
You should take extra care when out in the sun if you:
Snow, sand, concrete and water can reflect the sun's rays on to your skin, and the sun is more intense at high altitudes.
Sunburn and sun allergy are short-term risks of sun exposure.
Longer-term risks over decades include:
Protect your skin from strong sunlight by covering up with suitable clothing, finding shade, and applying sunscreen.
In the UK, the risk of getting sunburn is highest from March to October, particularly from 11am to 3pm, when the sun's rays are strongest.
You can also burn in cloudy and cool conditions, and from sunlight reflecting off snow.
When out in the sun for long periods, you should wear:
When buying sunscreen, make sure it's suitable for your skin and blocks both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation.
The sunscreen label should have:
Most people don't apply enough sunscreen. Around 35ml (6-8 teaspoons) of sun lotion is needed to cover the body of an average-sized adult and achieve the stated SPF.
Watch this video about how to apply sunscreen.
If sunscreen is applied too thinly, it provides less protection. If you're worried you might not be applying enough SPF15, you could use a stronger SPF30 sunscreen.
If you plan to be out in the sun long enough to risk burning, sunscreen needs to be applied twice:
Apply it to all areas of exposed skin, including your face, neck and ears. Also apply it to your head if you have thinning or no hair, but wearing a wide-brimmed hat is better.
The length of time it takes for skin to go red or burn varies from person to person. The Cancer Research UK website has a handy tool where you can find out your skin type to see when you might be at risk of burning.
You need to use water-resistant sunscreen if you're exercising and sweating or in contact with water.
Apply sunscreen liberally, frequently and according to the manufacturer's instructions. This includes straight after you've been in water (even if it's "water-resistant") and after towel drying, sweating, or when it may have rubbed off.
Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight.
During warm, sunny weather in the UK, children of all ages should:
To ensure they get enough vitamin D, it's recommended children aged 1-4 years should have a daily vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms, even if they do get out in the sun.