Sunburn is most common during the summer, but can happen any time of year if you aren’t careful. Most sunburns aren’t serious and will go away on their own within a week. However, severe sunburn can be very painful and lead to other health issues.
Our skin is constantly exposed to the sun, whether we’re aware of it or not. In fact, collagen production (which keeps skin looking young and plump) starts to decline when we hit our 20s, in no small part due to sun damage. And even if we take collagen supplements, they can only do so much if our skin is constantly being damaged by the sun.
When you get sunburned, the collagen is damaged, which can cause the skin to appear wrinkled. The good news are there are some things you can do to treat sunburn and help the skin heal. The bad news is that none of them are really very fun.
What Is Sunburn?
A sunburn is a type of radiation burn that affects living tissue, such as skin, that results from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, commonly from the sun’s rays. A common symptom of a mild sunburn is red, tender skin. In more serious cases, symptoms may include swelling or blisters, fever and headaches.
Skin damage from UV radiation may be short-term—such as sunburn—or long-term, such as premature aging of the skin and skin cancer. Overexposure to UV radiation can cause inflammation in your body, which can be uncomfortable and even painful.
If you have fair skin, you are more likely to get sunburn than those with darker complexions. Although some people experience mild discomfort in the form of redness and pain, more severe sunburn can lead to blistering, peeling, and long-lasting scars.
What You Need to Know About Sunburn
How do I know if I’ve got a sunburn?
If your skin is red and painful or itchy, then you probably have a sunburn. You may also notice that your skin is warm when you touch it. If you’re not sure, check with your doctor or healthcare provider.
Diagnosis – Symptoms at a Glance:
- Skin that’s red and sore to the touch. The pain of sunburn starts out mild and gets worse over time. Skin can also become red, hot, itchy, and swollen. Depending on how bad the burn is, it may peel after a few days.
- Swelling or blistering of the skin. If your skin is blistering or peeling, you can get an infection from scratching or popping blisters.
- Pain or throbbing in the affected area. If you get sunburned often enough, it can lead to premature aging of the skin and skin cancer.
- Fever or chills. If you have a fever from your burn or it’s painful enough that you’re having trouble sleeping or functioning normally, you should see a doctor.
- Other symptoms like dizziness or nausea may also indicate serious illness and you should seek medical attention if they develop.
You can treat mild sunburns with home remedies like over-the-counter pain relievers and topical moisturizers. If your burn is more severe or you begin experiencing other symptoms like fever or chills, you should see your doctor right away.
A mild sunburn can last from 3 to 5 days. More severe cases can take longer to heal. The more severe the sunburn, the longer it will take for your skin to return to normal.
People with lighter skin tones are more likely to get sunburned than those with darker complexions. This is because their bodies don’t produce as much melanin, which protects against UV damage.
While anyone can get a sunburn, people with fair skin are at higher risk. These include those with red or blond hair and blue or green eyes. People who have a lot of moles or freckles may also be more susceptible to burning.
Move out of the sun as soon as possible to prevent further damage to your skin. Put cool cloths on the burn for 10-15 minutes at a time, several times a day. This may help reduce pain and swelling.
How Can I Get Rid of My Sunburn Fast?
- Cool compresses: Cool down your burned skin with cool compresses or a cool bath to reduce swelling and ease pain. Avoid using ice directly to your skin as it may cause further damage to your skin instead of providing cooling effects.
- You can buy hydrocortisone 1% steroid cream from your local pharmacy. This is a mild topical corticosteroid that can help to reduce inflammation and redness.
- A light spray-on moisturizer like aloe vera gel or soy milk can also help to ease the symptoms of sunburn. These products may be able to temporarily cool the skin, providing some relief.
- Gently apply a moisturizer that contains aloe vera or soy to help soothe sunburned skin. One to try: Cool Aloe Vera Moisturizing Spray. Keep the moisturizer in the fridge for extra relief. You can also treat your skin with coconut oil, sunflower oil, or olive oil if you don’t have any after-sun products on hand.
- Drink extra fluids. Dehydration is a common side effect of a bad sunburn — in fact, severe burns and blisters can sap moisture from your body at such a rapid rate that it leads to shock
- Over-the-counter medicines: You can take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to help relieve pain from sunburn. If you are allergic to NSAIDs, you can try acetaminophen instead. There are also over-the-counter creams such as lidocaine that can help numb your sunburned skin and provide relief from pain.
How Long Does Sunburn Last?
The answer depends on the severity of the burn and how quickly you acted after sun exposure. If you experienced only a mild burn — reddened skin that’s painful to touch — it may last anywhere from three to five days before it starts to fade. More severe burns may take seven to 10 days or longer to heal.
Can a Sunburn Last for Months?
A sunburn shouldn’t last longer than two weeks; if your redness persists beyond this point, you should see a dermatologist. There’s an outside chance that the pinkish tint is actually an allergic reaction or a rash caused by something other than UV radiation.
Do Sunburns Turn Into a Tan?
No, they don’t — at least not immediately. Technically, what we think of as “tanning” is actually your body’s defense mechanism at work: It produces melanin
The best way to prevent sunburn is to use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher whenever you plan on spending time outdoors. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and after any prolonged contact with water.
It’s also helpful if the sunscreen contains antioxidants like vitamins A, C and E because those will help protect your skin from free radical damage caused by UV rays.
Sunscreen should be applied 15 minutes before going outdoors and reapplied every two hours — or more often if you’re swimming or perspiring heavily.
You can also protect yourself from the sun by covering up with clothing or avoiding direct sunlight during peak UV hours (10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.).
Babies and children are at increased risk because their skin is thin, delicate, and more sensitive than adult skin.