Sunburn is an inflammation of the skin caused by overexposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun—in particular UVB, or ultraviolet B, radiation. UVA, or ultraviolet A, penetrates more deeply than UVB but is less likely to cause an immediate burn. Rather, it causes wrinkling and leathering, damages connective tissue, and may be crucial in the development of melanoma, the most deadly of skin cancers.

Sunburn is not only painful—it also speeds up the aging of your skin and significantly increases your chances of developing skin cancer. If you have fair skin, blue eyes, or red hair, you’re at greatest risk for sunburn, but even if you have a dark complexion, you need to be careful in the sun. Most sunburns are first-degree burns, but extreme overexposure—especially if you are fair-skinned—can result in second- or even third-degree burns.

Symptoms of Sunburn

  • First-degree: reddish skin that feels hot and tender
  • Second-degree: small, fluid-filled blisters that may itch and eventually break
  • Third-degree: severely red to purplish skin discoloration, blistered skin accompanied by chills, mild fever, nausea, headache, or dehydration

Note: A sunburn becomes most evident 6 to 24 hours after sunning.

What Causes Sunburn?

Exposure to the sun thickens the skin while encouraging the production of melanin, a pigment that absorbs UV rays. This is the skin’s defense against the sun. African-Americans and other people with comparatively dark skin probably need less sun protection than light-skinned people because their higher concentration of melanin protects them from UV rays. They seldom develop skin cancer and are less susceptible to sun-induced wrinkles.

But in people who are not genetically dark-skinned, repeated exposure to UV rays can result in the destruction of elastic fibers in the skin, which causes it to sag and wrinkle and damages blood vessels. Even though people who tan easily appear to be less susceptible to skin cancer, they still need protection against UV rays.

What If You Do Nothing about Sunburn?

Although very painful, a sunburn eventually heals as the skin renews itself, generally taking from one to four days for a first-degree burn that reddens the upper skin layer (epidermis) to four to seven days for a more severe second-degree burn that affects underlying layers.

Home Remedies for Sunburn

Virtually everyone is susceptible to some degree of skin damage from the sun’s rays given sufficient exposure. If you inadvertently get burned by the sun, the following tips will help minimize any pain and swelling.

  • Soak the affected area for 15 minutes in cold water (but not ice water), or apply cold compresses. This provides some immediate relief from the pain, conducts heat away from your skin, and reduces swelling.
  • Get some pain relief. If your sunburn is very painful, take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. Aspirin and ibuprofen will both relieve pain and help reduce inflammation.
  • Try cooling lotions. Products that contain menthol or camphor may provide temporary relief by affecting the nerve endings and constricting superficial blood vessels in the skin. Be careful: they can be irritating and can cause allergic reactions, especially in children.
  • Don’t apply greasy creams or lotions such as petroleum jelly or baby oil. These types of oily products act to seal in the heat.
  • Spray on first aid. If the burn is very painful, you may want to consider a first aid spray containing benzocaine, a topical anesthetic that also acts on the nerve endings in the skin. Be careful, as this may sensitize the skin and lead to an allergic reaction upon subsequent applications of other medications in the “-caine” family. Don’t use other “-caine” anesthetics for sunburn: they are readily absorbed into the bloodstream if the skin is broken and may cause immediate toxic or allergic reactions.
  • Powder your sheets. Sprinkle cornstarch powder on your sheets to minimize chafing.
  • If you are sunburned all over your body, try an oatmeal bath. The oatmeal soothes the skin and reduces inflammation. You can buy oatmeal bath products (such as Aveeno) in drugstores, but these tend to be expensive. Make your own oatmeal soak at home by finely grinding a cup of dry instant oatmeal in a blender or food processor. Scatter the oatmeal in a tub of cool water and soak for a while. (Cornstarch works equally well.)
  • Use aloe vera gel. This can help soothe and heal the broken skin caused by sunburn.
  • Drink sugarless tea. It may relieve and ease some of the discomfort of sunburned skin.

Using the UV Index

The UV Index indicates the amount of UV radiation reaching earth at noontime. The index is based on a scale of 0 to 10+. It is determined for 58 major U.S. cities as well as for smaller towns and cities within a 30-mile radius of each city. The higher the index number, the greater your UV exposure when you go outdoors. The index appears in local newspapers, is regularly reported on TV and radio weather reports, and is available at many Internet weather sites.

Sunburn Prevention

Sunburn is easily avoidable if you take some simple precautions. These include using an effective sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher and avoiding long sun exposure, even if you are wearing a sunscreen. Avoid direct sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as this is when ultraviolet rays are at their peak. Also make sure that children, especially infants, are well protected, Dress them in shirts with long sleeves and long pants made of lightweight cotton.

Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor

Most sunburns are first-degree burns that affect the outer skin layer, cause no blistering, and can be treated readily with home remedies. However, contact your physician if:

  • You develop a fever or experience chills, nausea, or disorientation.
  • Fluid-filled blisters form. Secondary infection is a possibility.
  • The pain is especially severe. This could be a severe second-degree or a third-degree sunburn that has not only damaged the epidermis but the underlying nerves and subcutaneous tissue as well.

What Your Doctor Will Do

After an examination, your doctor may remove the fluid from any blisters. If infection has occurred, an antibiotic may be prescribed.


The Complete Home Wellness Handbook

John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 04 Nov 2011

Last Modified: 05 Mar 2015