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All about Sunburn

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Sunburns are caused by exposure to too much ultraviolet (UV) light. UV radiation is a wavelength of sunlight in a range too short for the human eye to see. Ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) are the two types of solar radiation most responsible for sunburn. Sunlamps and tanning beds also produce UV light and can cause sunburn.

Melanin is the dark pigment in the outer layer of skin (epidermis) that gives your skin its normal color. When you’re exposed to UV light, your body protects itself by accelerating the production of melanin. The extra melanin creates the darker color of a tan.

A suntan is your body’s way of blocking the UV rays to prevent sunburn and other skin damage. But the protection only goes so far. The amount of melanin you produce is determined genetically. Sunburn in a light-skinned person may occur in less than 30 minutes of midday sun exposure while Indian skin may tolerate it for hours before getting a sunburn but it all depends on the exposure rate and also varies from person to person. 


  1. The sun’s rays are most intense at noon. The sun’s rays also increase in intensity in relation to altitude and latitude. The higher the altitude, the greater the concentration of UV rays. Likewise, UV rays are more powerful nearer to the equator. UV rays “bounce” off reflective surfaces – including water, sand, and snow; so if you are on any of these surfaces you are bound to receive a cumulative amount of rays. Thus, a skier, swimmer, fisherman, or desert dwellers may be bombarded with UV rays from above and below.
  2. Intense and repeated sun exposure that results in sunburn increases your risk of infection, premature aging of your skin (photoaging) and skin cancer. Skin cancer usually appears in adulthood. But it is caused by sun exposure and sunburns that began as early as childhood. Also there is no such thing as a “healthy tan.”
  3. Factors that make sunburn more likely:
    • Having a history of sunburn
    • Occupation: people who have to work under the sun for longer hours like soldiers, security personnel’s, sportspersons, labourers.
    • Age: Infants and children are very sensitive to the burning effects of the sun.
    • Fair skin: People with fair skin are more likely to get sunburn. But even dark and black skin can burn and should be protected.
    • Time of exposure: The sun’s rays are strongest during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
    • Tanning beds or sun lamps or UV lamps can increase your chances of having a severe sunburn.
    • Medications: medicines given for diabetes, fungal infection, contraception, diuretics etc. can increase sun sensitivity. Even some antibiotics like doxycycline increase the skin’s sensitivity to sun. Also topical creams like retinoids, vitamin c & its derivatives etc increase the photo sensitivity of the skin. Therefore these should always be applied at night. Note: The extent of sensitivity may vary from person to person.
  4. Do not apply any skincare product for 2-6 hours immediately after a sunburn. 
  5. If you have had severe sunburn it is always advisable to see a dermatologist. As ruptured blisters make you more susceptible to bacterial infection. Also if you experience severe inflammation and oozing blisters do see a dermatologist.


Immediate symptoms of sunburn are:

  • hot, red, tender skin
  • pain when the skin is touched or rubbed
  • dehydration
  • After 48-72 hours (in some cases it can also take a week) the skin may, swell, blister, peel, and itch.

Most symptoms of sunburn are usually temporary. But the damage to skin cells is often permanent, which can have serious long-term effects, including skin cancer. By the time the skin starts to become painful and red, the damage has been done. Pain is worst between 6 to 48 hours after sun exposure. In the case of prolonged sun exposure, symptoms of heat exhaustion like vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, etc. might develop which warrant immediate consultation from a doctor.

Signs of severe sunburn can include:

  • excessive blistering or swelling of the skin
  • chills
  • a high temperature (fever) of 38°C (100.4F) or above, or 37.5°C (99.5F) or above in children under five.
  • dizziness, headaches and feeling sick (symptoms of heat exhaustion)


  1. First-aid measures:
    • Apply cold compresses to the affected skin by placing clean a towel or wash cloths. Compresses should be dipped in cool or tepid water, not cold water.
    • Drink lots of water and other fluids so that you don’t get dehydrated.
    • Apply mild moisturizing lotion to relieve the discomfort. DO NOT use butter, petroleum jelly (Vaseline), or other oil-based products. These can block pores so that heat and sweat cannot escape, which can lead to infection. Aloe vera lotion or gel can be beneficial in treating the symptoms.
    • Wear loose cotton clothing and lie down in a cool place.
  2. Medicinal measures: though mild to moderate sunburn can be treated at home it is always advisable to consult a doctor as soon as you feel slightly better after taking the above first aid measures. If you have had a severe sunburn, never try to do self medication instead consult a dermatologist. Also one should see a doctor if a young child or baby has sunburn, as their skin is particularly fragile.
  3. After care:
    • Avoid using any harsh chemicals on sunburn area: Avoid anything more than cold water and mild cleanser on the sunburn.
    • Protect the burnt skin: Ensure that the sunburnt skin does not see the sun for another 2-4 weeks. This will not only promote healing but also reduce the chance of getting pigmentation after healing of this area.
    • Do not get any overzealous procedures like waxing, shaving, facials, bleach etc on the affected or sun burnt area for a minimum 3-4 weeks after a sunburn.


Click to Read: DO’s & DON’Ts of SUN PROTECTION

IF YOU want to resolve and get rid of your skin concern (Sunburn); then instead of a Basic Skincare Regime; you would require a CUSTOMIZED SKINCARE REGIME (containing specific skincare products that can target to resolve your concerns) along with correct skincare guidance. 



Q1: You only need sun protection on hot, sunny days and not windy or cloudy days?

ANS: You need to use sun protection methods every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny, cloudy, or raining—UV rays are always there during daylight. Don’t forget that sunscreen is needed even on cloudy days, because approximately 50 – 80% of UV rays penetrate through the clouds.

Q2: You need sun exposure for vitamin D?

ANS: It’s unsafe to seek extra sun to top-up vitamin D levels. Most people get enough UV exposure to maintain vitamin D levels through their usual outdoor activities. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about your vitamin D level.

Q3. I have heard that tanning is a healthy sign?

ANS: There is no such thing as a “healthy tan.” It is erroneously thought that a tan is healthy and protects you from sunburn. In actuality, a tan results from the body defending itself against further damage from UV radiation. A tan may look beautiful, but that does not mean the skin is healthier than non-tanned skin.

Q4. As long as my skin is not feeling hot, I cannot get a sunburn?

ANS: It is an incorrect notion to think that if the skin feels cool it will not sunburn as quickly. It’s the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation – not heat – that causes sunburn, premature ageing, eye damage and skin damage, which can ultimately lead to skin cancer. UV cannot be seen or felt. It is not like the sun’s light which we see, or the sun’s warmth (infrared radiation) which we feel. Because we can’t sense UV radiation, we won’t know it’s damaged our skin until it’s already too late.

Q5. Water blocks the UV rays?

ANS: Water reflects about 30% rays back and around 70% penetrate through water. That means as long as you can see light underwater your skin is getting hit by those rays.
Also, bear in mind that water is a reflective surface and the rays that do get reflected back off the surface of water hit the parts of you that aren’t underwater. This increases the tanning or sunburn of the exposed area. So wear sunscreen religiously even while taking a dip in your swimming pool. 

Q6. Skin cancer is caused by sunburn? 

ANS: You don’t need to get sun burnt to develop skin cancer. Skin cancer occurs when skin cells are damaged, from over exposure to UV rays from the sun. We’re exposed to UV rays every time we go outdoors, and even short sun exposure adds up over time to skin damage. Sunburn increases your risk even more because the damage to the skin cells can be more severe.

Q7. One sunburn won’t do any harm?

ANS: If you think a single sunburn cannot affect your chances of developing skin cancer, think again. It is actually found that only one blistering sunburn, especially during your childhood, can more than double your chances of developing melanoma later in life. Reduce your risk by minimizing exposure during the sun’s strongest and most powerful hours: from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen.


These should only be applied or used after the initial redness and burning has subsided a bit. Do not apply anything other than cold water or cold milk on the sun burnt area for first 24 hours.

  1. Cool milk compress: Take cold milk in a bowl and dip a washcloth or gauze into it. When the gauze or washcloth is saturated, let the excess liquid drain off. Drape across your burn, pressing gently so that it stays in place, and leave it on for 2-5 mins. Repeat as many times as required depending upon the calming effect it provides.
  2. Honey compress: Take a cotton ball and dip it in honey. Apply this on the sun burnt area.
  3. Aloe vera compress: You can dip a cotton ball in aloe vera juice and apply on the sun burnt area. 
  4. Oatmeal compress: Add oatmeal into your bath water, wait for 5-10 mins letting the anti-inflammatory properties leak into the water. Then bathe gently in the oatmeal-infused water to relieve the burn.
*Disclaimer : Result may vary from person to person.