Everyone should take proper measures to protect their skin from sun damage and sunburn. Using proper SPF and sun-protective clothing is vital for proper skin maintenance. If a sunburn does occur, it can take up to two weeks to heal completely and cause permanent damage to the skin's surface.
A sunburn is a painful burn after prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. It can cause inflamed skin, blisters, and many other distressing symptoms.
A sunburn generally takes up to two weeks to heal; however, the pain from sunburn will typically recover within two days.
People with fair skin, children, and those on certain medications can be at more risk of sunburn. It’s essential to speak to your doctor or pharmacist about prescription medication if you are at risk.
Sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30+ is the best way to prevent sunburn. Staying out of the sun, seeking shade, and staying hydrated are great ways to avoid sunburn.
What does a sunburn look and feel like?
A sunburn is a painful burn that occurs after prolonged exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun.
Everyone produces melanin, a skin pigmentation acting as a defense mechanism used by the body to protect against harmful UV rays. When the skin melanin is exposed to too much UV light, it causes damage to the DNA on the skin’s surface, resulting in a sunburn.
Sunburns can appear with the following symptoms:
|Inflamed skin||A sunburn can look red and swollen, and feel tender. Depending on skin color, inflammation may appear whiter on those with darker skin.|
|Blisters||Blisters generally occur on the surface of the skin after a severe sunburn and can cause raised lumps that can break and weep.|
|Pain and itching||Sunburns generally feel sore and sensitive and can be irritated by clothing and by touching the burnt area.|
|Peeling skin||As the sunburn starts to heal, it’s common to see the skin peel and sluff off as new skin appears underneath.|
In more severe cases, sunburns may cause headaches, confusion, nausea, and vomiting due to severe dehydration. This is called “sun poisoning.” If you experience this, it’s essential to drink plenty of water, stay out of the sun, and seek medical attention as soon as possible.
How long does it take for a sunburn to heal?
The time it takes for a sunburn to heal depends on the severity of the burn. Mild sunburns typically take 3 to 5 days to heal, whereas more severe sunburns can take up to two weeks or longer. Although it takes up to two weeks to heal completely, the pain from sunburn should start to subside within two days.
Sunburns on the face, neck, ears, and shoulders take about the same amount of time to heal; however, these areas may need extra care and attention because they are more sensitive.
During the healing stage, the body repairs damaged skin, and as new skin cells are made, symptoms such as peeling, flaking, and blisters may appear. New skin will replace the damaged skin cells, and the skin will return to its normal color and texture within two weeks.
Who is at risk of a sunburn?
Anyone can get a sunburn if exposed to the sun for prolonged periods without sun protection, but some people are at a higher risk due to many contributing factors.
- People with fair skin. People who are fair-skinned and those with light-colored eyes and freckles are more susceptible to sunburn because they have less melanin in the skin.
- Children and infants. Younger children are at high risk of sunburn because their skin is more sensitive, and they may be unable to communicate to adults when their skin is hot or burnt.
- Those with a family history of melanoma. People who have a family history of melanoma (skin cancer) are at a higher risk of developing more severe sunburns.
- People with a medical condition that weakens the immune system. Being exposed to the sun can aggravate immune system diseases and can increase the chances of getting sunburn.
- Those that take medications that make skin more sensitive to light. Some medications, such as antihistamines and some antidepressants can make the skin more sensitive to light, increasing the chances of sunburn.
How to treat a sunburn and make it heal faster
There are several safe and effective ways to treat sunburn and help it heal. Although it can take up to two weeks to heal completely, using the treatment methods below can help relieve pain, swelling, and inflammation caused by sunburn.
- Cool the skin. Take a cold bath or shower or apply a cold compress, such as an ice pack or damp cloth, to the affected area. This will help soothe the inflammation and decrease redness and pain.
- Moisturize the skin. Applying moisturizers like lotion or aloe vera gel to a sunburn can help keep the skin hydrated and healthy and decrease pain.
- Stay hydrated. This is important as sunburn can cause dehydration. Drinking plenty of water and other fluids helps hydrate the skin and can prevent sunburn from getting worse.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers. If you experience pain or discomfort from a sunburn, it can help to take ibuprofen to relieve the pain from inflammation and other symptoms.
- Avoid further sun exposure. It’s essential to avoid further sun damage after experiencing a sunburn. Being exposed to the sun can increase the risk of additional or more severe skin damage.
- Don’t disturb blisters. Although it can be hard to avoid breaking skin blisters, it’s very important to leave them intact to promote healing and prevent infections. If blisters break on their own, keep them clean and covered.
- Be patient. Sunburns take time to heal completely, so caring for the skin and body while the damaged areas heal is essential.
Tips on how to prevent sunburn
Using sunscreen is one of the best ways to prevent sunburn and help keep your skin safe. The best protection is to use sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or more at least 15 minutes before going outside. It’s also important to reapply sunscreen every two hours or more if swimming or sweating. Protect your lips with an .
Another way to prevent sunburn is to wear protective clothing, such as a hat, long-sleeve shirt, and pants. It’s also wise to wear fully covered shoes to protect the sensitive foot skin.
Finding a shaded area, such as tree coverage, can help protect you from the sun. If natural shade isn't possible, use a large umbrella, shade tent, or canopy.
Being mindful of medications that can increase your risk of sunburn. Speak with your doctor or pharmacist about the medications you take and their sun sensitivity level.
Although sunburns can take up to two weeks to heal, you can treat painful symptoms by staying hydrated, taking over-the-counter pain medications, and being patient. The best way to prevent sunburn is by avoiding it. Use proper SPF, wear protective clothing, seek shaded areas, and be mindful of the medications you take. If you experience symptoms of dehydration, seek medical help immediately.
Will sunburn turn into a tan?
After healing from a sunburn, the affected area may look more tanned due to the increased melanin that formed to protect the skin from further damage.
Can I put sunscreen on a sunburn?
It is not recommended to put sunscreen on sunburn as it’s designed to be applied to healthy skin before sun exposure. Sunscreen can further irritate skin damaged from sunburn. It's beneficial to wear sun-protective clothing and stay out of the sun if you already have a sunburn.
What are the worse days of a sunburn?
The pain caused by sunburn is at its worst six hours to two days after exposure. The redness from sunburn can last up to two weeks and be darkest on the first and second days. While the symptoms are temporary, it’s important to remember sunburn damage is permanent.
Do not forget that sun safety is important for everyone, including people of all skin tones. Make sure to use sunscreen strictly as directed in the label and do not apply it to infants and small kids without a healthcare professional recommendation. Also be aware that sunscreens are only one element of a sunburn, skin cancer and early skin aging prevention strategy. Therefore, do not forget to use other sun protective measures such as protective clothes, sunglasses, and a hat, and seek shade whenever possible during periods of peak sunlight to avoid overexposure.
- Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Medication and other agents that increase sensitivity to light.
- American Cancer Society. Are some people more likely to get skin damage from the sun?
- Mayo Clinic. Sunburn.
- BioMed Research International. Sunlight effects on the immune system.