Sunburns are caused by UV rays emitted from the sun. Any excessive amount of time in the sun without using prevention (protective sunscreen) will cause the skin to burn. There are two types of UV rays that play a role in causing sunburns: UVA and UVB rays.

UVA rays have a longer wavelength and penetrate deeper into the skin. They are a primary cause of skin ageing as well as playing a role in the formation of skin cancer. UVA rays are much more abundant than UVB rays. UVB rays have a shorter wavelength and are a primary cause of skin cancer and producing the sunburn. Both rays are dangerous for the human body and measures should be taken to protect your skin from getting burned.

Sunburns can lead to:

  • premature wrinkling
  • ageing of the skin
  • age spots
  • increased risk of skin cancer
  • sunburn of the eyes causes them to be dry, red, painful and gritty. Constant exposure of eyes to the sun can cause cataracts, macular degeneration and pterygium, a tissue growth eventually leading to blindness.



  • red, warm and tender skin
  • swollen skin
  • blistering

In severe cases:

  • headache
  • fever
  • nausea
  • fatigue



Limit the time you spend in the sun around midday. The sun is the strongest between 10 am and 4 pm.

If available, check your local UV index. The UV index predicts the amount of incoming UV rays from the sun. Special care must be taken when the index predicts very high or above levels of incoming UV rays. The UV ray index can be found in the weather forecast of newspapers, TV, radios and online. The World Health Organisation provides websites for certain countries and their UV index.


Use Shade appropriately. When UV rays are the strongest, seek shelter to avoid over-exposure to sunlight. Trees, umbrellas or canopies are an option but they do not offer complete protection.

Wear protective clothing. A hat with a brim offers protection for you head, ears, eyes, noes and neck. Sunglasses that provide 99% to 100% UVA and UVB protection help reduce the risk of eye damage. Loose fitting clothes protect the skin from sunlight.

Use sunscreen: Apply sunscreen of at least SPF 15. Reapply it every two hours or after physical activities or swimming.


The average duration for sunburns is between 3 and 5 days. If symptoms last longer, seek medical help.

Home treatment

Light cases:

  • Avoid further exposure to the sun until the sunburn has healed
  • Gently apply a cool, wet cloth on the burned area or take cool baths.
  • Apply thick moisturising lotions

If blistering occurs:

  • Lightly bandage or cover the area with a non-stick gauze to prevent infection.
  • Don’t break any blisters, this will slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection.
  • If blisters break and the skin peels, remove dried fragments. For broken skin, gently apply an anti-septic to prevent infection.

In severe cases:

  • Treat symptoms with aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to relieve pain and headache and reduce fever.
  • Drink plenty of water to replace fluid losses.

When to seek medical help

For severe sunburns covering more than 15% of the body surface, dehydration, extreme pain lasting for longer than 48 hours or a high fever over 38℃(101℉), seek medical help.

Sun allergy

A sun allergy is an immune system reaction to sunlight. The most common skin areas affected are the back of the neck, back of hands, lower legs and arms. The allergy usually presents as a rash or tiny blisters and in rare cases can cause other types of skin eruptions. Depending on the severity of the allergy, sun allergies can develop just by standing in the sun for very short moments.

The most common types of sun allergies are:

Actinic prurigo: This is an inherited from polymorphous light eruption (PMLE) . Symptoms usually appear more intensely than those of PMLE and often appear during childhood. It provokes a red and itchy rash on places exposed to the sunlight and causes headaches or nausea. In rare cases it can cause bleeding under the skin, create plaques (flat, raised areas) or create fluid filled blisters.

Photo-allergic reaction: This reaction occurs as an effect of having ingested or applied chemicals that react with the sunlight. Common medications causing such a reaction are antibiotics, pain relievers, diuretics for high blood pressure and heart failure. This causes itchy red rashes or tiny blisters, which can spread around the body to areas that were not exposed by the sun.

Solar Urticaria: This allergic reaction is rare and mostly affects young women. It leads to hives on the area of the skin exposed to sun. Hives are large, red, itchy bumps.

Sun burns and solariums

A tan is our body’s way of protecting itself from the sun and is a defence  mechanism. BUT: using a solarium to develop a tan can be much more dangerous than actually tanning in the sun. Most sunbeams used in solariums give out more ultra violet rays than the midday tropical sun, hence increase the risk of developing cancer.

The effects of a solarium depend on the strength of the UV rays being used, how often a solarium is frequented, the duration of the session, skin type and colour, and age. People under the age of 25 are at greater risk when using a solarium, especially when using solariums frequently.

You should NOT use a solarium if you

  • have fair, sensitive skin that burns easily or tans slowly or poorly
  • have a history of sunburn, particularly in childhood
  • have lots of freckles and red hair
  • have lots of moles
  • are taking medicines or using creams that make your skin sensitive to sunlight
  • have a medical condition made worse by sunlight, such as vitiligo, a long-term skin condition caused by the lack of a chemical called melanin in the skin
  • have had skin cancer or someone in your family has had it
  • already have badly sun-damaged skin

Sources used:




Harvard Health

Posted on June 18, 2020 by Luitgard Holzleg

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