Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on May 11, 2023
5 min read

Despite health warnings about sun damage, many of us still subject our skin to the sun's burning rays. More than a third of adults and nearly 70% of children admit they've gotten sunburned within the past year, according to the CDC. Years of getting too much sun can lead to early wrinkling and age spots, and it makes you more likely to get skin cancer.

You can have a strategy for keeping your skin safe and find sunburn relief if you linger on your lounger too long. 

You already know the simple explanation behind sunburn. When your skin is exposed to the sun for a period of time, eventually it burns, turning red and irritated.

Under the skin, things get a little more complicated. The sun gives off three wavelengths of ultraviolet light:

  • UVA
  • UVB
  • UVC

UVC light doesn't reach the Earth's surface. The other two types of ultraviolet light not only reach your beach towel, but they penetrate your skin. Skin damage is caused by UVA and UVB rays.

Sunburn may be the most obvious sign that you've been sitting outside for too long. But sun damage isn't always visible. Under the surface, ultraviolet light can alter your DNA, prematurely aging your skin. Over time, DNA damage can contribute to skin cancers, including deadly melanoma.

How soon a sunburn begins depends on:

  • Your skin type
  • The sun's intensity
  • How long you're exposed to the sun

While people with lighter skin tend to get sunburned more quickly, brown and Black skin can also burn. Sunburns may be harder to see on darker skin. But they still cause damage like wrinkles and hyperpigmentation – and raise your risk of skin cancer. 

When you get a sunburn, your skin hurts and may look red, depending on your skin tone. If the burn is severe, you can have swelling and sunburn blisters. You may even feel like you have the flu – feverish, with chills, nausea, a headache, and weakness.

A few days later, your skin will start peeling and itching as your body tries to rid itself of sun-damaged cells.

Sunburn treatment is designed to attack the burn on two fronts – relieving reddened, inflamed skin while easing pain. A few home remedies for sunburn are:

Compresses. Apply cold compresses to your skin or take a cool bath to soothe the burn.

Creams or gels. To take the sting out of your sunburn, gently rub on a cream or gel containing ingredients such as:

  • Menthol
  • Camphor
  • Aloe – Use 90% aloe vera gel or the juice squeezed directly from the aloe plant. Every tropical culture uses aloe vera as a treatment for sunburn. It soothes damaged skin because it is anti-inflammatory and may prevent the burn from deepening.
  • If you don't have any of these, apply a moisturizing lotion that doesn't contain alcohol.

Refrigerating the cream first will make it feel even better on your sunburned skin.

NSAIDs. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen or naproxen, can relieve sunburn swelling and pain all over your body.

Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and other fluids so that you don't become dehydrated.

Avoid the sun. Until your sunburn heals, stay out of the sun.

You may be able to treat the sunburn yourself. But call a doctor if you notice any of these more serious sunburn signs:

  • A fever of 102 F or higher
  • Chills
  • Severe pain
  • A headache
  • Sunburn blisters that cover 20% or more of your body, such as your entire chest and belly
  • A dry mouth, thirst, reduced urination, dizziness, and fatigue, which are signs of dehydration

Also, if you notice any mark, bump, blemish, or mole that is changing, growing, or bleeding, call your doctor. It may be skin cancer, which is often treatable when it's found early.

Some ways to keep your skin safe when you're outside are:

Watch the clock. The sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you can't stay indoors during that block of time, at least stick to shady spots.

Wear the right clothes. When you have to be outdoors, wear sun-protective clothing, such as:

  • A broad-brimmed hat
  • A long-sleeved shirt and pants
  • UV-blocking sunglasses

Use sunscreen. Cover any exposed areas of skin liberally with at least 1 ounce of broad-spectrum sunscreen. That means sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays.

The sunscreen should have an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. Follow these tips for applying sunscreen:

  • Apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before you go outside.
  • Use sunscreen even on overcast days, because UV rays can penetrate clouds.
  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours – or more often if you're sweating heavily or swimming.
  • If you wear makeup, apply sunscreen first and then put on your foundation. By itself, foundation doesn’t have the broad-spectrum sunscreen that you need, even if it does have some sunscreen in it.

Talk to your doctor. Discuss any medications you take. Some antibiotics, antidepressants, and diabetes drugs can make skin more sensitive to sun. Some drugs that you put on your skin, including Renova and Retin-A, can make your skin very sensitive and cause it to burn quickly. If you use these treatments, ask your doctor how to protect your skin from the sun.