No one enjoys getting sunburnt, but sometimes the sun catches you unprepared and sunburn happens, especially in summer. There’s no reversing the damage, but there are a few things you can do to help your skin and body recover faster.

Let’s take a look at sunburn, how to treat it, how to prevent it, how it increases your skin cancer risk, and what you should do if you have accidentally gotten sunburnt this summer.

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is the skin’s inflammatory reaction to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Melanin – the pigment which gives skin its colour and defends it from UV rays – darkens to protect sun-exposed skin. The amount of melanin you produce is determined by genetics, which is why some people sunburn while others tan. However, both are signs of cellular damage to the skin.

Sun exposure and sunburn lead to premature skin ageing and life-threatening skin cancers.

Sunburn can range from a tanned complexion to a red burn, through to blistering and peeling. This peeling is your body’s way of shedding the damaged cells. Sunburn doesn’t always look this way though. It can be experienced as a brown tan or as a waxy feeling, with rough skin texture and acne breakouts.

How much does getting sunburnt increase your skin cancer risk?

Fair-skinned people are at higher risk of sunburn and skin cancer because their skin lacks the protective pigment melanin. Repeated sunburns raise your risk of skin cancer; in fact, just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence is enough to double your chance of developing melanoma later in life.

Five sunburns in your lifetime increases your risk of deadly skin cancers by 80 per cent.

UV damage can occur even if you can’t see the burn. Sun damage builds up over time, so the more you burn, the greater your risk of skin cancer. People who are exposed to the sun nearly every day – through work or play – have a very high risk of skin cancer.

Skin cancer can develop anywhere and on any skin type (even if you have dark skin).

What to do when you’re accidentally sunburnt

Here are nine things you should do if you accidentally get too much sun.

  1. Take a cool shower
    Enjoy a soothing, cool shower and pat your skin dry. Rubbing sunburn will make it worse.
  2. Stay hydrated
    Drink more water than you usually do to ensure you stay properly hydrated.
  3. Avoid certain skincare products
    If you use peels, anti-ageing serums or exfoliants, stop using these products until your sunburn heals. Also avoid products that make your skin more sensitive to the sun, such as topical retinoids, hydroxy acids and some fragrances.
  4. Apply topical aids
    Apply a cream or serum rich in vitamins B3, C or E, or other cooling ingredients such as aloe vera, cucumber or menthol. (Growing an aloe vera plant in your garden can be great for times like this!)
  5. Moisturise
    As long as your skin isn’t peeling or broken, use a soothing moisturiser after your shower to restore nourishment back into your skin.
  6. Find a new sunscreen
    If you got sunburnt while wearing sunscreen as directed on the label, it’s time to find a more effective product. Choose a broad-spectrum, SPF50+ sunscreen and wear it every day. Remember to read the instructions carefully and re-apply every two hours (or more if you’re sweating or swimming) for the product to work properly. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to your ears, the backs of your arms and legs, and your hands.
  7. Avoid the sun
    While recovering from sunburn, avoid adding any more UV exposure to your already damaged skin cells. Stay out of the sun completely until your skin heals and then be extra careful about protecting yourself when you do return to normal outdoor activities.
  8. Be sun safe – always!
    Sunburnt or not, it’s essential to stay sun safe. Include sunscreen as part of your everyday skincare routine; wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and long sleeves when spending time in the sun; and seek shade whenever you can.
  9. Get a skin cancer check
    Sunburn is the fastest way to develop new skin cancers which can be potentially deadly. The earlier skin cancer is detected the better your chances of successful treatment and cure. If found early enough, some skin cancers can be treated with simple topical creams. But we won’t know it’s there if we don’t look, which is why annual professional skin cancer checks with a doctor are so vital.

Did you know?
Pre-tanning does not protect you from getting sunburnt or developing skin cancer.

Important facts you should know about sunburn

  1. Some people are more prone to sunburn than others. For example, people with fair skin are at greater risk. But anyone can get sunburnt; no one is immune to sunburn and its harmful effects.
  2. Even if you don’t burn, any unprotected sun exposure raises your skin cancer risk. Even people with tanned or darker complexions can get skin cancer. Even if your skin doesn’t redden when you go out in the sun, the UV rays still cause cellular damage that leads to skin cancer.
  3. You can get sunburn anytime, anywhere. The sun’s UV levels vary depending on the time of day, the season and the location. A high UV index means you will burn faster or more severely. UV can’t be seen or felt – it’s different from the sun’s light or heat – so it’s important to check the UV index in your weather forecast every day. UV levels can still be high on cool or cloudy days, and this is often how people get accidentally burnt: you simply don’t think of the damaging impact of the sun when you can’t see or feel it!

All sunburn is bad. No matter how mild, every tan or burn you get is a sign of permanent injury that can lead to skin ageing and cancer.

How to prevent sunburn

There are simple ways to reduce your risk.

  1. Slip on a shirt
  2. Slop on broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen
  3. Slap on a broad-brimmed hat
  4. Seek shade
  5. Slide on sunglasses.
  6. Avoid the outdoors during peak UV times, which are usually between 10am-2pm. You can check the UV index on your weather forecast.
Young woman with sunburned shoulder at the beach

What now?

When you get sunburnt, your skin will heal but the real damage has already been done on a deeper level. Repeated sunburns put you at high risk for skin cancer and skin ageing, so protect yourself every day and make a commitment to looking after your skin health. Remember, an annual skin check provides the best chance of early detection which might save your life.