As Australians, we cherish our sunny days and outdoor adventures.
However, while basking in the warm embrace of the sun, it’s easy to forget about the potential consequences. Sunburn, that unwelcome souvenir from a day spent outside, holds more than just discomfort.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the science of sunburn, how it affects our skin, and the importance of sun protection.
What is sunburn?
Sunburn is the skin’s response to excessive exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
When your skin is unprotected and exposed to the sun for extended periods of time, the UV rays penetrate the outer layer, damaging the DNA of your skin cells.
This triggers an inflammatory response, leading to the characteristic redness, tenderness, and warmth associated with sunburn.
Understanding how sunburn affects your body is crucial for taking proactive measures to protect your skin from dangerous sun exposure.
The stages of sunburn
- Stage 1 - Exposure: This is the initial stage when your skin is exposed to excessive UV radiation. The effects likely won’t be immediately visible, but the UV rays start to penetrate the skin and cause damage to the DNA of your skin cells.
- Stage 2 - Burn: After a few hours, as the sun’s rays continue to affect your skin, the first visible signs of the sunburn appear. The exposed skin becomes red, tender, and warm to the touch.
- Stage 3 - Pain: In this stage, after roughly 6–8 hours, the sunburn becomes more uncomfortable. You will likely experience increased pain and sensitivity in the affected area. This is a result of the inflammation response triggered by the damaged skin cells.
- Stage 4 - Peeling: As your skin starts to heal, typically a few days after the initial sunburn, you may notice peeling skin in the affected area. This is the dead and damaged skin cells shedding and being replaced with new skin. Peeling is a completely natural part of the process as your skin heals.
What happens when you get a mild sunburn?
When you experience a mild sunburn, the affected area of the skin typically turns red, feels warm to the touch, and may be slightly swollen. It will likely also be sensitive and tender, which can cause you discomfort.
As the sunburn progresses, you may also notice a mild peeling of the skin as it undergoes the natural healing process.
While a mild sunburn can be uncomfortable, with proper care and soothing remedies, the skin usually recovers within a few days.
Symptoms of mild sunburn
- Redness and pinkness in the affected area
- Warmth to the touch
- Mild swelling or inflammation
- Sensitivity and tenderness
- Discomfort or pain, especially when pressure is applied
- Itching or stinging sensation
- Dryness or tightness of the skin
- Minor peeling as the skin starts to heal
These symptoms are indicative of a mild sunburn, and while they may cause temporary discomfort, they typically subside within a few days with appropriate care and soothing remedies.
Monitor your symptoms closely and take the necessary steps to prevent further damage and promote healing.
How to care for a mild sunburn
- Cool compress: Apply cool, damp compresses to the affected area to soothe your skin and reduce inflammation.
- Moisturise: Gently apply a moisturing lotion or aloe vera gel to the sunburned skin to help hydrate.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers: Consider taking over-the-counter pain relievers to manage any discomfort or pain. There are also natural alternatives you can consider trying.
- Hydrate: Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and promote overall skin health.
- Avoid further skin damage: Protect the sunburned area from additional sun exposure until it has healed completely.
- Loose clothing: Wear loose, breathable clothing to avoid further irritation of the sunburned area.
- Stay out of hot water: Avoid hot showers or baths, as they can further dry out your skin.
- Avoid picking or peeling: Refrain from picking at or peeling the sunburned skin, as this can lead to irritation, infection, or scarring.
How long does a mild sunburn last?
In general, mild sunburns typically resolve within a few days to a week. With proper care, the skin’s healing process is usually accelerated, leading to a faster recovery.
What happens when you get a severe or first-degree sunburn?
A severe or first-degree sunburn occurs when the skin is exposed to intense and prolonged UV radiation.
In this case, the affected area of the skin becomes deeply red, painful, and may develop blisters.
The severity of the sunburn indicates significant damage to the skin cells, and immediate attention and proper care is necessary to prevent complications, alleviate discomfort, and support the healing process.
Symptoms of severe sunburn
- Intense redness and inflammation of the affected area
- Severe pain and tenderness
- Large blisters filled with fluid
- Swelling and possible skin tightness
- Headache, dizziness, and fatigue
- Nausea or vomiting
- Fever or chills
- Dehydration or excessive thirst
These symptoms indicate a severe sunburn, which requires immediate attention and medical intervention.
If you experience these symptoms, it’s crucial to seek medical assistance to address the sunburn and receive appropriate treatment.
How to care for a severe sunburn
- Seek medical attention: If you have a severe sunburn with symptoms like intense pain or large blisters, it’s important to seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
- Avoid bursting blisters: Do not attempt to pop or burst the blisters, as this can increase the risk of infection. Allow them to heal naturally.
- Keep the skin clean and dry: Gently cleanse the sunburned area with mild soap and water, and pat it dry with a soft towel.
- Apply a cool compress: Use cool, damp compresses or take cool showers to help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.
- Over-the-counter pain relief: Take over-the-counter pain relievers, as recommended by a healthcare professional, to manage any pain and discomfort.
- Hydrate: Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and support the healing process.
- Avoid further sun exposure: Protect the sunburned area from further sun exposure until it has healed completely.
- Follow medical advice: Follow the instructions and advice provided by your GP or relevant healthcare professional to prevent complications.
How long does a severe sunburn last?
Generally, it may take several days to weeks for a severe sunburn to heal completely. However, the healing time can be prolonged if complications arise or if the sunburn covers a large area of your body.
It’s essential to follow medical advice and use the proper care to support the healing process and minimise potential complications.
Embrace sun safety: Prevent sunburns for long-term healthy skin
The consequences of sunburn extend beyond temporary discomfort, with long-term implications for our overall health.
To prevent sunburn and its associated risks, like skin cancer and premature skin aging, adopting effective sun protection measures is paramount.
This includes using high sun protection factor (SPF) sunscreen, seeking shade during peak UV hours, wearing sun protective clothing, and avoiding prolonged exposure of unprotected skin to the sun.
By prioritising sun safety and minimising your risk of sunburn, we can promote healthier skin and reduce the chances of encountering skin irritations and the damaging effects of UV radiation.
Visit the skin cancer professionals at SunDoctors
The team at SunDoctors skin cancer clinics take great pride in educating the community about skin cancers and skin cancer prevention. SunDoctors is a leading provider of skin cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and education. With clinics operating in over 40 locations across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, SunDoctors patients are guaranteed a rapid diagnosis, pathology, and referral.If you want more information or have any questions, want to learn more about melanoma checks and self-examinations, or if you're looking to book a skin cancer check, call 137546 (13SKIN) or book online at sundoctors.com.au.