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Sunburn: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, Home Remedies, and Prevention

By Dr. Pallavi Singh in Dermatology

Jun 19 , 2024 | 7 min read

This summer, with temperatures soaring higher than ever, one can’t be too cautious about protecting their skin from sunburn. While exposure to sunlight helps our bodies produce vitamin D that plays a key role in building strong bones by aiding calcium absorption, overexposure to sunlight can lead to sunburn. Sunburn is more than just a temporary inconvenience; it damages your skin and can have more serious long-term consequences, including an increased risk of skin cancer.

To help you protect your skin, this blog will be your one-stop shop for all things sunburn. We'll break down the science behind sunburn, explore effective sunburn treatments to soothe the discomfort, and most importantly, equip you with some simple and effective prevention tips. Let’s start with some basics.

What is Sunburn?

Sunburn occurs when the skin is overexposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or even from artificial sources such as tanning beds. UV radiation damages the DNA in skin cells, leading to inflammation and reddening of the skin. It's essentially a type of radiation burn. Symptoms can include redness, pain, swelling, and in severe cases, blistering and peeling. Sunburn not only causes discomfort but also increases the risk of skin cancer and accelerates skin aging. 

What are the Symptoms of Sunburn?

Sunburn or sun poisoning symptoms severity is typically classified into three degrees based on the depth of skin damage caused by UV rays. Here's a breakdown of symptoms for each degree:

First-Degree Sunburn Symptoms

  • Redness: The affected area appears red and may feel warm to the touch.
  • Pain: Sunburnt skin can be tender and painful, especially when touched.
  • Itchiness: Itching or irritation may develop as the skin begins to heal.
  • Minor Swelling: Some swelling may occur in the sunburned area.

Second-Degree Sunburn Symptoms

  • Blistering: Blisters filled with fluid may develop on the sunburned skin.
  • Increased Pain: Second-degree sunburns are more painful than first-degree burns.
  • Swelling: Swelling may be more pronounced in second-degree sunburns.
  • Peeling: After a few days, the sunburned skin may start to peel as it heals.

Third-Degree Sunburn Symptoms

  • Deep Tissue Damage: Third-degree sunburns penetrate deeper layers of the skin, causing significant tissue damage.
  • Severe Pain: Third-degree burns are extremely painful and may require medical attention.
  • Skin Discoloration: The affected area may appear white, black, or charred.
  • Numbness: Nerve damage from severe sunburns can cause numbness in the affected area.

What Causes Sunburn?

  • Ultraviolet (UV) Rays: The sun emits various types of radiation, including invisible UV rays. These come in two main categories:

UVA Rays: These rays penetrate deep into the skin's dermis layer, contributing to premature ageing and wrinkles. They also play a role in sunburn, though to a lesser extent than UVB rays.

UVB Rays: These shorter-wavelength rays are the main culprit behind sunburn. They damage the DNA in the skin's outer layer (epidermis), triggering the inflammatory response that leads to sunburn symptoms.

  • Exposure Time: The amount of time your skin is exposed to UV rays directly affects the severity of sunburn. The longer you're in the sun, the greater the risk of sunburn.
  • Skin Type: People with fair skin, less melanin (skin pigment), and red or blond hair are more susceptible to sunburn because they have less natural sunburn protection against UV rays.
  • Reflection: Sunburn can also occur from reflected UV rays, such as those bouncing off sand, snow, or water.
  • Altitude: UV radiation intensity increases with altitude, so you're more likely to get sunburned at higher elevations.
  • Artificial UV Sources:  Tanning beds and sun lamps also emit UV rays and can cause sunburn.

Treatment Options for Sunburn

Sunburn can be uncomfortable, but there are several treatment options to help alleviate symptoms and promote healing. Here are some effective strategies:

Skin Cooling Treatments

Sunburn can cause skin to feel hot and irritated. Skin cooling treatments can help soothe the burn and reduce discomfort. Some best solutions for sunburn include:

  • Cool Compresses: Apply a clean cloth soaked in cool water to the affected area for 15-20 minutes several times a day.
  • Cool Bath or Shower: Taking a cool bath or shower can help cool the skin and provide sunburn relief. Avoid using hot water, as it can further irritate the skin.
  • Cooling Gels or Lotions: Over-the-counter (OTC) cooling gels or lotions containing ingredients like aloe vera or menthol can provide a soothing sensation and help reduce inflammation.

Moisturizing and Hydrating the Skin

Sunburn can cause the skin to become dry and dehydrated. Moisturising and hydrating the skin can help restore moisture and promote healing. Consider using a gentle, fragrance-free moisturising lotion or cream to keep the skin hydrated. Look for products containing ingredients like hyaluronic acid or glycerin, which can help lock in moisture. Coconut oil is also a great alternative that can help in hydrating the skin.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications

OTC medications can help relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and alleviate other symptoms associated with sunburn. Some options include:

  • Pain Relievers: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce pain and inflammation associated with sunburn. 
  • Topical Corticosteroids: OTC hydrocortisone cream can help reduce inflammation and itching caused by sunburn. Apply a thin layer to the affected area as directed.

What are Some Home Remedies for Sunburn?

Home remedies can provide relief for mild sunburn and help promote healing. Here are some effective options:

Aloe Vera Gel

Aloe vera for sunburn is renowned for its soothing properties and can provide relief for sunburned skin. Apply pure aloe vera gel directly to the affected area to help reduce redness, inflammation, and discomfort. Aloe vera gel also helps moisturise the skin, promoting faster healing.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil contains fatty acids and antioxidants that can help hydrate and soothe sunburned skin. Gently massage coconut oil onto the affected area to help moisturise and reduce inflammation. Coconut oil forms a protective barrier on the skin, which can aid in healing and prevent further irritation.

Cucumber Slices

Cucumber slices have natural cooling properties that can help soothe sunburned skin and reduce inflammation. Place chilled cucumber slices directly onto the affected area or blend cucumber into a paste and apply it to the skin for a refreshing sensation. Cucumber slices can provide immediate relief and help alleviate sunburn symptoms.

Oatmeal Baths

Oatmeal baths can help relieve itching and irritation associated with sunburn. Add colloidal oatmeal to a cool bath and soak in it for 15-20 minutes to help soothe sunburned skin. Colloidal oatmeal has anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce redness and promote healing. Oatmeal baths are gentle on the skin and suitable for all ages.

Foods Rich in Antioxidants

Consuming foods rich in antioxidants can help protect the skin from sun damage and promote healing from within. Incorporate antioxidant-rich foods such as berries, citrus fruits, leafy greens, and nuts into your diet to support skin health and reduce inflammation. Antioxidants help neutralise free radicals caused by UV radiation, helping to prevent further damage to the skin.

Avoiding Further Sun Exposure

One of the most crucial steps in treating sunburn is to avoid further sun exposure until the skin has healed. Stay indoors or seek shade when outdoors, especially during peak sun hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wear protective clothing, such as hats and long sleeves, and apply sunscreen with a high SPF to any exposed skin when going outside. Avoiding further sun exposure allows the skin to heal without additional damage.

Sunburn Prevention

Preventing sunburn is essential for maintaining healthy skin and reducing the risk of skin damage and skin cancer thereby reducing the need for skin cancer treatment. Here are some effective strategies for preventing sunburn:

Applying Sunscreen

Sunscreen is a crucial tool in protecting the skin from harmful UV radiation. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher and apply it generously to all exposed skin before going outdoors. 

Wearing Sun-Suited Clothing 

Wearing protective clothing can help shield the skin from UV radiation. Opt for tightly woven, lightweight fabrics that cover as much skin as possible, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, and wide-brimmed hats. Darker colours and thicker fabrics provide better sun protection than lighter colours and thinner fabrics.

Avoiding Sun Exposure

Limiting sun exposure, especially during peak sun hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., can help reduce the risk of sunburn and skin damage. Plan outdoor activities for early morning or late afternoon when the sun's rays are less intense. Seek shade whenever possible, such as under trees, umbrellas, or canopies.

Seeking Shade During Peak Sun Hours

Seeking shade during peak sun hours is essential for protecting the skin from harmful UV radiation. When outdoors, take regular breaks in shaded areas to give your skin a rest from direct sun exposure. Use umbrellas, hats, or other portable shade structures to create shade if natural shade is unavailable.

Sunscreen Reapplication After Swimming or Sweating

Water, sweat, and towelling can remove sunscreen from the skin, reducing its effectiveness. To ensure adequate protection, reapply sunscreen immediately after swimming or sweating and every two hours, regardless of water or sweat exposure. Use a water-resistant sunscreen if swimming or participating in water activities.

When should I see my healthcare provider for sunburn?

See a doctor for sunburn if it's severe (covers more than 20% of your body), blisters are large or leaking pus, you have a fever over 102°F (39°C), feel dehydrated, experience severe pain, or have any concerns about how it's healing. 


Sunburn is a common concern in the summers. By following sun safety tips like seeking shade, using sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, and wearing protective clothing, you can enjoy the outdoors without any sunburn worries. If you do experience sunburn, focus on soothing the discomfort with cool compresses, aloe vera, and gentle moisturisers. But remember, for severe sunburn with blistering, fever, or concerning symptoms, don't hesitate to seek professional medical attention at Max hospitals, the best sunburn treatment hospital. Our team is here to provide expert care and help you recover quickly.