Overexposure to the sun without adequate sun protection will result in sunburn. Years ago sunburn was viewed as an inconvenient step towards getting a suntan. Nowadays, it’s widely accepted that sunburn is a serious medical complaint which damages the underlying layers of the skin, causing premature ageing, age spots (also known as lentigo or liver spots) and increased risk of skin cancer.

Symptoms of sunburn

  • Redness of skin
  • Tender skin
  • Blisters, Peeling skin

What causes sunburn?

Skin needs to be protected from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. There are two types - UVA and UVB.

UVA rays are present regardless of the weather. These penetrate deep into the surface of our skin and damage the cells beneath causing signs of ageing such as wrinkles, sun spots and leathery skin.

UVB rays are most prevalent in the summer months and are strongest at around midday. UVB rays can also reflect off snow and water. These rays are the ones that cause sunburn and an increased risk of skin cancer.

When you get sunburnt the top layer of skin releases chemicals that cause blood vessels to swell and fluid to leak. The skin becomes hot, painful and red and if the burn is severe enough will result in swelling and blisters. Eventually the skin peels to get rid of the damage cells and then returns to normal. But the damage is more than skin deep - although not visible the UV rays penetrate deeply enough to damage cells beneath the skin which are then at risk of becoming cancerous.

Children are particularly vulnerable, as are people with: fair skin, red or fair hair, people with lots of moles or freckles and those with a family history of skin cancer.

How to protect yourself

SPF stands for sun protection factor. Aim for sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. This should increase to at least 30 for children or for adults when first exposed to the sun or if you are fair skinned or do not tan easily. Total sunblock lotion should be used on particularly exposed and sensitive areas such as the nose, ears and lips.

Ensure the product is ‘broad-spectrum’ which means it protects agains both UVA and UVB rays.

Apply sun protectant liberally - about 30 to 40g for each application for an adult and about 20g for each application for a child. Apply about 30 minutes before going out in the sun and reapply after swimming.

How to treat sunburn

If you are sunburnt you can ease the symptoms by applying a cold flannel, or taking a cool bath or shower. You should also cover-up with loose cotton clothes and remain in the shade until the sunburn has healed. Pain killers can be taken to alleviate pain and you should rest and increase your fluid intake to guard against dehydration.

If the sunburn is mild you can apply aftersun cream or a moisturising lotion to get rid of the feeling of tightness and soothe the skin. Calamine lotion will also help to relieve soreness and itchiness.

A 1% hydrocortisone cream available from the chemist will help reduce any swelling, however hydrocortisone should not be applied to the face or to broken or infected skin.

If you develop vomiting, fever, headache and shivering you might have sunstroke. Drink plenty of fluids, try to stay cool and consult your doctor.

If the sunburn is severe you should speak to your pharmacist for advice on special burn cream and dressings. These may need to be applied by a nurse or doctor.

Seek medical advice if it’s a baby or toddler who is sunburnt.

Alternative Remedies & Self-help

  • Prevention is better than cure. So always protect yourself with a good sunscreen (see above). Babies under 12 months should be kept in the shade and covered up with a high factor sun lotion or sunblock.
  • Young children should be encouraged to play in the shade and made to wear sun hats and protective clothing. High SPF lotions should be applied liberally to any exposed areas.
  • Adults too should wear wide-brimmed hats, t-shirts and sunglasses with UV protection.
  • The sun is at its most dangerous around midday. If possible avoid exposure between 11am-3pm altogether.
  • Once out of the sun aftersun products can be used to rehydrate skin and soothe any redness. Lotions containing aloe vera or calamine are ideal.