- Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation can lead to sunburn, a painful condition that can result in inflammation, peeling and blistering.
- Sunburn can usually be treated at home, but severe sun damage may require medical attention.
- Know your skin tone to choose the appropriate sun protection to help prevent sunburn.
- Long-term sun damage should be assessed by a dermatologist.
Sunburn is a reaction in response to overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light radiated from the sun. Sunburned skin is dry, red and inflamed, and will peel off as part of the healing process.
The likelihood of sunburn and its severity will depend on several factors: skin tone, the surrounding environment, weather and time of day.
Sunburn can effectively be treated with simple home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) topical creams and ointments.
What Happens During a Sunburn?
Two types of ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB) damage the skin. UVA rays cause long-term damage by penetrating deep into the dermis and affecting cells’ DNA; UVB rays are absorbed by the topmost layer of skin and trigger sunburn, an inflammatory response. Signs of sunburn include inflammation and redness.
As a defense mechanism, skin responds to UV rays by generating additional melanin, a dark pigment that absorbs and dissipates the radiation. This process accounts for the change in skin tone associated with tanning.
The skin further responds to damage from UV radiation by generating an excess of skin cells. This thickens the outermost layer of skin—the epidermis—as a means to protect the skin from further UV ray penetration.
UVA radiation causes direct damage to DNA molecules inside skin cells. It is responsible for the bonds between the molecules in DNA structures breaking down, and it also contributes to the formation of free radicals that further oxidize and cause deterioration to these bonds.
The damage to the structure of cellular DNA affects the ability of ruptured bonds to repair. This may result in skin cells dying or mutating. In this manner, sun damage weakens skin, which over time can lead to premature signs of aging and skin cancer.
How Long Does Sunburn Last?
Symptoms of sunburn are noticeable approximately 2–5 hours after sun exposure. These symptoms include skin redness, swelling and tenderness. Blisters, nausea, fever and chills may occur in more severe cases.
The worst symptoms typically appear after 12–24 hours. Healing may take as little as 2–3 days for mild sunburn, however severe burns may take up to three weeks or even longer to heal completely.
Burn severity is typically measured in three degrees. First-degree burns are the least severe, and are characterized by damage occurring only to the outermost layer of skin, or epidermis.
In second-degree burns, the damage reaches the dermis – the skin tissue below the epidermis, which contains sweat and oil glands, capillaries, hair follicles and nerve endings.
In third-degree burns, damage extends below the skin and affects deeper tissues. These burns can take from several months to several years to heal, and may result in the loss of the affected body part.
Many factors, such as sun exposure and environmental factors will affect the severity of sunburn. Skin tone plays an important role in determining whether or not one will be sunburned, and to what extent, but most sunburns are first-degree burns.
However, those with fair skin are more at risk. And for those with very light skin tones, second-degree burns can occur and even third-degree burns – although extremely rare.
Those with darker skin tones are far less likely to develop severe sunburns as dark skin contains more melanin, which protects the skin against damage induced by UV rays.
|Degree of sunburn||Symptoms||Average Time to Heal|
Surface skin is wet to the touch
|Third degree||Severe blistering|
Surface skin appears charred
Loss of sensation
Potential loss of affected body part
|Months to years|
How long does it take for sunburn to peel?
Peeling is the result of the body purging the dead skin cells, and typically begins in the latter part of the healing process, as the skin below the burned area regenerates.
First-degree sunburns will begin to peel after two days, and may continue for an additional 2–3 days before completely healing. Second-degree burns take longer to heal and will begin peeling after 1–2 weeks.
How long do sunburn blisters last?
Severe sunburn resulting in second-degree burns can cause blisters to form. These blisters present as small, painful, itchy bumps filled with fluid—usually plasma, serum, lymphatic fluid or pus—across the burned area. They typically appear several hours to a full day after initial sun exposure, and remain for about one week before resolving.
As blisters heal, the accumulated fluid drains, and they fade in appearance and slowly heal. The deflated blisters will peel away naturally.
How to Treat Sunburn at Each Stage
Sunburn healing progresses through three stages with the symptoms evolving over the course of each stage.
Stage one is characterized by skin redness and tenderness. In the second stage, the skin typically swells and becomes inflamed; particularly severe burns begin to blister. During the third stage, damaged skin begins to heal and dead skin peels away.
As the burn progresses, it is important to adjust your treatment in response. Applying the correct treatment at the appropriate time in your healing process can ease pain and reduce the likelihood of permanent skin damage.
Stage One: The Burn
The first burn stage usually begins about two hours after sun exposure. Skin begins to take on a redness, becomes tender; skin may also feel warm or hot to the touch.
During all stages of sunburn, it is important to drink plenty of water as sunburn depletes the natural oils and moisture that naturally protects skin. Dehydration can result if you do not compensate for this loss. Dehydration impacts overall health and can inhibit the healing process of your sunburn.
Certain diuretic fluids, such as caffeinated and alcoholic drinks, can also interfere with adequate hydration by causing the body to expel more fluid. Avoid these if you are experiencing sunburn.
Bathe in cool water
Taking a cool bath or shower can soothe the skin and relieve the burning sensation that accompanies this stage of sunburn. As there will likely be some mild pain during this stage, lightly pat your skin dry afterward to avoid irritation.
Apply cold compresses
A cold compress does double-duty by cooling the skin and soothing any burning sensation. A bag of ice, ice pack or a bag of frozen peas can all provide cooling relief. Wrap in a towel to serve as a protective barrier between the skin and the iciness. Apply to the damaged area for 10–15 minutes and repeat several times a day until your skin has healed.
Soak in colloidal oatmeal
Oatmeal’s anti-inflammatory properties make it an effective sunburn solution. Colloidal oatmeal baths can soothe the skin while keeping it moisturized. Use lukewarm water, as hot water can aggravate inflammation and may worsen skin dryness.
Oatmeal baths typically provide effective pain relief after about 10 minutes; be sure to follow package directions for precise instructions. Avoid soaking in a colloidal oatmeal bath for longer than instructed, as this may also lead to skin irritation and dryness.
Stage Two: Inflammation
Stage two begins about six hours after sun exposure. During this stage, inflammation and swelling develop, and the skin becomes red and irritated. In more severe burns, painful blisters begin to form.
Over-the-counter medications and topicals
Several OTC topical treatments and medications can provide effective relief to symptoms of second stage sunburn.
- Acetaminophen works to relieve pain
- Aspirin and ibuprofen provide pain relief; their anti-inflammatory properties can reduce swelling
- Topical anesthetic sprays can ease sunburn pain; use with caution, as they can cause skin sensitivity.
Aloe vera gel
Aloe vera gel contains aloin, a compound with anti-inflammatory properties. Apply to the burned skin to reduce swelling and soothe discomfort.
Preliminary studies suggest aloe vera gel may accelerate the healing process of first- and second-degree burns. Further research is needed to properly assess its efficacy..
Sterile dressings are pads or compresses available in most first aid kits and pharmacies. Apply directly to wounds to protect against potentially harmful germs and environmental irritants.
Topical ointments encourage healing and add an additional layer of protection against infection. Change dressings and bandages at least once every two days to maintain hygiene and to ensure optimal healing.
Stage Three: Peeling
The skin begins to heal during the third stage with dead, damaged layers of skin peeling away. This stage usually begins about two days after sun exposure for mild sunburns, or after two weeks in more severe cases.
As sunburned skin flakes and peels, it will feel uncomfortably dry and tight. Apply moisturizing creams regularly to keep skin hydrated and reduce the severity of any peeling. Moisturizers will also help strengthen the skin’s barrier function, to promote natural healing and speed up the recovery process.
Look for moisturizers containing vitamins C and E, for their antioxidant properties that can reduce inflammation. Aloe vera gel is an ideal option, as it is rich in both these vitamins.
Soybean oil has also been proven to have powerful antioxidant effects, and can reduce skin inflammation caused by UV radiation. Soybean oil moisturizers are available OTC, and typically appear in cream formulations.
What to Avoid
Avoid picking or peeling dead skin. Removing burnt skin before it peels off naturally can set back the healing process, cause further irritation and lead to infection.
Avoid touching or popping blisters. As they dry out and begin to heal, they may leave behind patches of dead skin; avoid peeling these as well.
Avoid applying petroleum jelly to sunburned skin. Its powerful barrier effect can prevent the skin from breathing, hinder it from purging toxins and cause debris to become trapped inside pores. These effects may worsen the condition of already damaged skin.
Avoid moisturizers with strong fragrances, as these can potentially cause irritation to sun damaged skin.
Avoid applying corticosteroids to healing sunburns. Corticosteroid topicals were once believed to provide sunburn relief, however recent studies have shown them to be ineffective for this purpose.
Lastly, avoid exfoliants while your skin is still peeling and likely to be especially sensitive; exfoliation may cause irritation.
When to See a Doctor
Some sunburns can be severe, and should not be treated solely at home. Seek medical attention if you have:
- Severe blistering (covering a large area)
- High fever, chills, nausea and headache
- Signs of infection such as pus, swelling and red streaks around blistered areas
Practice self-examinations once a month to determine if you may have any serious skin issues such as melanoma or other skin cancers. Specifically, check for the following:
- A bump that changes in size or shape
- An irritated spot that bleeds and does not heal
- A mole that changes in size or shape
- An asymmetrical mole with varying pigmentation
How to Prevent Sunburn
The key to preventing sunburn is to avoid direct sunlight, particularly between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the strongest. During periods of prolonged sun exposure, apply generous amounts of sunscreen and wear protective clothing.
- Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, even during cloudy weather; for light skin tones choose a higher SPF
- Apply a broad spectrum sunscreen to protect against both UVB and UVA rays
- Choose water-resistant sunscreen when swimming or sweating heavily outdoor
- Be sure to apply sunscreen on clothed areas if your outfit is lightweight; the sun’s rays can penetrate thin cloth
- Choose clothing made from tightly-woven fabrics, such as denim, to prevent UV rays from reaching the skin
- Wear a hat to protect your scalp, hairline and any areas of your face that are difficult to cover with sunscreen
- Plan to spend time in the shade when outdoors for long periods of time; bring an umbrella or a wide-brimmed hat as part of your sun protection plan
- Avoid direct contact with the sun from 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are most dangerous
- Be aware that the intensity of UV radiation increases at higher altitudes
- Be mindful that UV rays reflect off water, snow and sand which increases the risk of sunburn
- Practice sun safety even in cloudy weather conditions as UV rays can penetrate cloud cover
Fitzpatrick skin type classification
The Fitzpatrick skin type classification divides skin tones into six types. Its primary use is to determine how different skin tones respond to sun exposure.
People with Fitzpatrick skin types of I–III are most likely to burn due to sun exposure.
Characteristics of these types include:
- Light to very light skin color
- Blue, green or grey eyes
- Blond, red or brown hair
At the far end of the scale are those with Fitzpatrick skin types IV–VI who very rarely burn; however no one is fully immune from UV damage. Characteristics of these types include:
- Beige, olive or dark toned skin
- Freckle-free complexion
- Dark brown eyes
- Black hair
Photosensitive medications, such as certain antibiotics and oral contraceptives, can increase the risk of sunburn. These medications can also intensify UV radiation’s effects on the skin and may cause UV rays to aggravate conditions such as eczema and herpes, leading to painful rashes and cell death.
It is essential to avoid sun exposure while taking photosensitive medications. Speak with your doctor to learn more about the possible risks your medications might pose, and seek medical attention if you do experience sunburn.
Some skin brightening and acne care products contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which can cause sun sensitivity and increase your susceptibility to sunburn. Avoid applying these products prior to sun exposure.
Most symptoms of sunburn are mild and can be treated at home. However, if you do not practice sun safety, you run the risk of developing a severe burn. Over time, unprotected sun exposure can lead to permanent skin damage, as well as the development of skin cancer.
Sunburn can take anywhere from three days to several months to heal completely depending on its severity. Symptoms evolve over the course of the healing process, and typically include redness, tenderness, swelling and peeling. Severe sunburns may also cause blistering, nausea and chills.
A wide variety of options are available to treat sunburn. Moisturizers will help keep skin supple and soothe irritated skin. Medicated ointments will speed up the healing process and help prevent infection; bandages and dressings protect an effective barrier against the environment.
Other sunburn solutions include oral medications to aid in reducing pain and inflammation, and drinking water to replace the moisture loss caused by sunburn.
The best solution to sunburn is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. If you plan on spending time outside, be mindful of your skin tone and sensitivities and practice sun safety in all conditions.
- D’Orazio, J., Jarrett, S., Amaro-Ortiz, A., & Scott, T. (2013). UV radiation and the skin. International journal of molecular sciences, 14(6), 12222–12248. doi:10.3390/ijms140612222
- Ousey K, Cutting KF, Rogers AA, Rippon MG. The importance of hydration in wound healing: reinvigorating the clinical perspective. J Wound Care. 2016 Mar;25(3):122, 124-30. doi:10.12968/jowc.2016.25.3.122
- Reynertson KA, Garay M, Nebus J, Chon S, Kaur S, Mahmood K, Kizoulis M, Southall MD. Anti-inflammatory activities of colloidal oatmeal (Avena sativa) contribute to the effectiveness of oats in treatment of itch associated with dry, irritated skin. J Drugs Dermatol. 2015 Jan;14(1):43-8. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25607907
- Arif H, Aggarwal S. Salicylic Acid (Aspirin) [Updated 2019 Jun 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519032/
- Luo, X., Zhang, H., Wei, X., Shi, M., Fan, P., Xie, W., … Xu, N. (2018). Aloin Suppresses Lipopolysaccharide-Induced Inflammatory Response and Apoptosis by Inhibiting the Activation of NF-κB. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 23(3), 517. doi:10.3390/molecules23030517
- Maenthaisong R, Chaiyakunapruk N, Niruntraporn S, Kongkaew C. The efficacy of aloe vera used for burn wound healing: a systematic review. Burns. 2007 Sep;33(6):713-8. Epub 2007 May 17. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17499928
- Bonina F, Puglia C, Avogadro M, Baranelli E, Cravotto G. The topical protective effect of soybean-germ oil against UVB-induced cutaneous erythema: an in vivo evaluation. Arch Pharm (Weinheim). 2005 Dec;338(12):598-601. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16281310
- Sims, Jeffrey. The No Nonsense Guide to Heat Wave, Drought & Hot Water Safety. Lulu Books and Beyond the Spectrum Books; 2015. https://books.google.ca/booksid=dES9CQAAQBAJ&pg=PA40&dq=Avoid+applying+petroleum+jelly+to+sunburned+skin&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi0hvaO99_lAhWBdt8KHe_AAgUQ6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q=Avoid%20applying%20petroleum%20jelly%20to%20sunburned%20skin&f=false
- Drucker AM, Rosen CF. Drug-induced photosensitivity: culprit drugs, management and prevention. Drug Saf. 2011 Oct 1;34(10):821-37. doi:10.2165/11592780-000000000-00000
- Kornhauser, A., Coelho, S. G., & Hearing, V. J. (2012). Effects of cosmetic formulations containing hydroxyacids on sun-exposed skin: current applications and future developments. Dermatology research and practice, 2012, 710893. doi:10.1155/2012/710893