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Health Hub

Current Approaches to Treating Sunburn

1/17/2018 1:26:39 PM

Australians are known for their love of the outdoors, especially during our long hot summers. However, on a summer's day, sunburn can occur in as little as 15 minutes. All types of sunburn, whether serious or mild, can cause permanent and irreversible skin damage. Sunburn also increases the risk of skin cancer, doubling the risk of melanoma if it occurs more than 5 times in a person. Sunburn is common, with more than 30 percent of adults and 70 percent of children and adolescents reporting at least one sunburn during the year.



Unlike other types of skin burns, sunburn may not be immediately apparent. After sun exposure, skin may turn red in as little as 30 minutes, but most often takes 2-6 hours. Pain is usually most extreme 6-48 hours after exposure. The burn continues to develop for 24-72 hours, sometimes followed by peeling skin in 3-8 days.

The symptoms of sunburn include:

  • changes in skin color, ranging from pink to red and even purple.
  • skin that feels hot to touch
  • pain and/or itching
  • swelling
  • fluid-filled blisters that may itch and eventually pop or break
  • broken blisters that peel to reveal tender skin beneath.



Normally, the skin is protected from the sun by a substance in the skin called melanin. Melanin is a pigment that causes your skin to appear light or dark coloured. If your skin is exposed to excessive ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun or a tanning bed, it can become burned.

The risk of getting sunburnt depends upon:

1.The amount of melanin in your skin. In general, people with fair skin and light-coloured hair have less melanin and are at a higher risk of sunburn, and will burn sooner than people with darker-coloured skin.

2. Location.

People in regions that are closest to the equator and high altitudes (e.g., mountainous areas) are at a higher risk for developing sunburn.  UV radiation is stronger at high altitudes (i.e. in the mountains) because the air is cleaner, and the thinner atmosphere absorbs less UV radiation. UV levels increase by 10%-12% with every 1000 meters increase in altitude.
Furthermore surrounding surfaces such as snow, water and sand reflect UV radiation. For example, snow reflects between 50 and 88% of UV radiation, sea surf (white foam) reflects 25 to 30% and dry beach sand reflects 15 to 18%. This means that not only is UV radiation present overhead directly from the sun but also indirectly, reflected from different surfaces.

3. The time of year. The angle of the sun varies depending on the time of year. UV radiation is greatest in summer because the sun is high in the sky and its rays pass through less atmosphere before reaching the earth’s surface. In winter the sun is lower in the sky and its rays have a longer course through the atmosphere; more UV radiation is absorbed, and UV levels are lower. 

4. Certain medications make the skin more sensitive to sunburn. This includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory 

drugs (e.g., ibuprofen), quinolone and tetracycline antibiotics (e.g., Ciprofloxacin, doxycycline), diuretics such as frusemide and hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ), psoralens and acne treatments like isotretinoin. Other drugs in

clude amiodarone and antifungals, including fluconazole. If you take one or more of these medications, you should avoid the sun and use protective measures (e.g., sunscreen) to avoid sunburn. 


There is no cure for the symptoms of sunburn except time and patience. Treatment aims to help manage the symptoms while the body heals. Suggestions include: 

1. Act Fast to Cool It Down

If you’re near a cold pool, lake or ocean, take a quick dip to cool your skin, but only for a few seconds so further exposure is minimized. It is important to cover up and get out of the sun immediately. Continue to cool the burn with cold compresses. Ice can be used to make ice water for a cold compress, however avoid applying ice directly to the sunburn. A cool shower or bath can also help, however take care to avoid harsh soaps, which might irritate the skin further.

2. Moisturize While Skin Is Damp

While skin is still damp, apply a gentle moisturizing lotion. Avoid petroleum or oil-based ointments, which may trap the heat and make the burn worse. Repeat to keep burned or peeling skin moist over the next few days. For added comfort, refrigerate the lotion before application.

There's no cream or lotion that will stop burnt skin from peeling off. This is part of the natural healing process. When skin is peeling:

  • Resist the temptation and don't pick at the skin. Allow the dead skin sheets to detach on their own.
  • Antiseptic cream can be applied to newly revealed skin to reduce the risk of infection.

3. Decrease Inflammation

At the first sign of sunburn, taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen or aspirin, can help with discomfort and inflammation. A low strength cortisone cream may also be applied as directed for a few days to help calm redness and swelling. Aloe Vera gels may also soothe mild burns and is generally considered safe. Wear loose, soft, breathable clothing to avoid further skin irritation.

4. Replenish Your Fluids

Burns draw fluid to the skin’s surface and away from the rest of the body, so you may become dehydrated. It’s important to rehydrate by drinking extra liquids, including water or oral rehydration solutions help to replenish electrolytes, immediately and while your skin heals. 


5. See a Doctor If …

Seek medical help if you or a child has severe blistering over a large portion of the body, has a fever and chills, is nauseous or vomiting or is feeling faint or confused. Extended periods in the sun can also lead to heat stroke.


1. For best protection, use a combination of sun protection measures:

  • Slip on some sun-protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
  • Slop on broad spectrum, water resistant SPF30+ (or higher) sunscreen. Apply 20 minutes before you go outdoors and reapply every two hours afterwards and after swimming and towelling dry.
  • Slap on a hat – broad brim or legionnaire style to protect your face, head, neck and ears.
  • Seek shade.
  • Slide on some sunglasses – make sure they meet Australian Standards.


2. UV levels aren’t linked to temperature; therefore, it is important to not use temperature as a gauge to when sun protection is required. Check the UV index and sun protection times for the day. Use sun protection any day that you’re outside for more than 20 minutes

 3. The intensity of the sun’s rays changes throughout the days. The strongest rays are between 10am and 4pm, so try to limit your exposure during these times.

 4. Use the right amount of sunscreen, it’s better to use a little more, than not enough! It is recommended to use a teaspoon sized amount per limb, e.g. 1 tsp for each per leg and each arm, the front of your body, back of your body, and 1 tsp for your face and neck, including your ears.