Sunburn and Other Sun Reactions of the Skin

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 21, 2023
5 min read

The sun makes invisible rays called ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) that can damage your skin. Too much sun can cause sunburn, changes to your skin's texture, and skin cancer. Rashes also can be attributed to sunlight. Even on cloudy days, UV radiation reaches the ground and can cause skin damage.

You get sunburn when you have so much exposure to the sun or another source of UV light that your body's protective pigment (melanin) can't keep up. 

Symptoms of sunburn include painful and warm-feeling skin, but you may not notice any signs right away. By the time your skin starts to hurt, the damage has been done. Sunburn usually looks red on lighter skin, but it may not be visible on darker skin. Serious sunburn may result in swelling and blisters. People with a serious sunburn may develop a fever, chills, and weakness. In rare cases, they can go into shock.

Several days after a sunburn, you may have peeling in the burned areas. You may have itching, and the peeled areas will be even more sensitive to sunburn for several weeks. The sunburned areas are at higher risk of premature aging and skin cancer down the road.

Anyone can get a sunburn. But you're more likely to get them if you:

To treat -- or ease the discomfort of -- sunburn:

  • Apply a cold compress to the affected area(s).
  • Take aspirin or acetaminophen right away after you're exposed to the sun to relieve sunburn discomfort and inflammation.
  • Apply a cooling gel or ointment containing aloe vera to the sunburned area.
  • Avoid further sun exposure until you're not longer feeling discomfort.

In cases of serious sunburn or sunstroke, get medical help right away.

Most people's skin will burn if they get enough UV radiation. But some people burn especially easily or have skin reactions to sunlight. This condition is called photosensitivity. You might hear it called a sun allergy.

People with photosensitivity have an immune system response to light, most often sunlight. They can break out in a rash when they're exposed to sunlight. How much exposure it takes to cause a reaction varies from person to person. Some people with photosensitivity are also affected by indoor fluorescent lighting.

Photosensitivity has been linked to:

Symptoms of photosensitivity

Symptoms of photosensitivity may include a pink or red skin rash with blotchy blisters, scaly patches, or raised spots on areas directly exposed to the sun. You may have itching and burning. The rash may last for several days. In some people, the reaction to sunlight gradually becomes less each time they're exposed to the sun.

Photosensitivity treatments

Some types of photosensitivity may respond to treatments such as oral beta-carotene, steroids, or other medications.

Polymorphous light eruption (PMLE) is a condition in which you get skin rashes even after limited sun exposure. PMLE usually affects women between ages 20 and 40. But it can also happen to children and, less commonly, men.

Symptoms of PMLE

The term "polymorphous" refers to the fact that the rash can take many forms. You may get crops of small pink or red, raised spots on the arms, legs, or chest. The redness may be harder to see on darker skin. Sometimes the rash has blisters and larger dry spots. The rash is accompanied by burning or itching that can last for several days.

PMLE treatments

In severe cases, a doctor may recommend oral steroids to treat PMLE. They sometimes recommend hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat skin conditions.

To protect your skin from the sun:

  • Avoid the sun during peak UVB hours (usually 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
  • Dress sensibly. The tighter the weave and darker the color of the fabric, the more sun protection it offers. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
  • Avoid sunbathing, including tanning beds.
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least 30 SPF with a physical blocker such as zinc oxide every day, even on cloudy days. Apply sunscreens about 20 minutes before you go outdoors. Even water-resistant sunscreens should be reapplied about every 80 minutes, after swimming, or after exercise.


Different sunscreens work best for different people. For children under 6 months, the best option is to keep them out of the sun. If that's not possible, put a little bit of sunscreen with zinc oxide and an SPF of at least 30 on small areas such as the cheeks and back of the hands. But first, test to see if the baby is sensitive by trying a small amount on their wrist. The fewer ingredients in the sunscreen, the less likely it is to cause an irritating skin reaction.

Even people with dark skin benefit from broad-spectrum sunscreen (the type that protects against both UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of at least 30. Sunscreen and staying out of the sun reduce the risks of cancer and uneven pigmentation in people of all skin colors. Many zinc oxide physical blocker sunscreens are easy to rub in, unlike the zinc oxide products of just a few years ago.

Your best bet is water-resistant sunscreen, especially if you expect to be swimming or sweating. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using 1 ounce of sunscreen to cover the exposed parts of your body. That's enough to fill a shot glass.