Our climate in Australia makes us vulnerable to the potentially harmful effects of the sun. In Australia, sunburn can occur in as little as 15 minutes on a summer’s day! All types of sunburn, whether serious or mild, can cause permanent and irreversible skin damage, which could lay the groundwork for skin cancers to develop. So what’s the best way to avoid sunburn and if you do end up suffering, how do you treat it? 



Sunburn is a burn on the skin that results from exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) in sunlight. You can see sunlight and feel heat (infrared radiation), but you can’t see or feel UV radiation. It can damage your skin even on cool, cloudy days.

The long-term effects of repeated bouts of sunburn include premature wrinkling and increased risk of skin cancer, including melanoma (a type of skin cancer). Once skin damage occurs, it is impossible to reverse. This is why prevention is much better than cure.


In addition to light and heat, the sun gives out invisible UV radiation. UV radiation can pass through sparse cloud. It can also be scattered in the air and reflected by surfaces such as buildings, concrete, sand and snow. The three types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, based on their wavelength, are UVA, UVB and UVC. The earth’s atmosphere absorbs nearly all of the most dangerous type – UVC – before it reaches the ground.

UVA and UVB radiation are both involved in sunburn, but the skin reacts differently to each one:


* UVA – penetrates into the deeper skin layers and damages the site where new skin cells are generated. Too much UVA radiation leads to roughening, dryness, blotchiness, wrinkling and sagging of the skin. High doses of UVA radiation can also cause sunburn, DNA damage in the skin and skin cancer.  

* UVB – is even more dangerous than UVA radiation and also causes skin damage and skin cancer. It affects the topmost layer of the skin. The skin responds by releasing chemicals that dilate blood vessels. This causes fluid leakage and inflammation – better known as sunburn.


When UV light hits your skin it stimulates the production of the pigment melanin, which absorbs UV light to help protect your skin against damage. While melanin is like our body's natural sunscreen, preventing the skin from burning as easily, it doesn't protect it against permanent skin damage or skin cancer. In fact, a tan is actually an indication that your skin has been damaged and is trying to protect itself from the sun’s UV rays. Both sunburn and tanning are signs of your skin cells in trauma.




For those who have winced at the feel clothing against tender over-sunned skin, the discomfort of sunburn is all-too familiar. When we burn our skin the top layer of the skin releases chemicals that result in the blood vessels swelling and leading fluids that cause inflammation and pain. Symptoms usually start about two to six hours after sun exposure when the skin turns red and feels tender, and peaks about 12 to 24 hours later.

Sunburn may cause redness, inflammation, tenderness and pain. In severe cases, it can result in dehydration, blistering (fluid filled blisters that may itch and eventually pop or break) and peeling (broken blisters peel to reveal even more tender skin beneath). Other symptoms may include fever, chills, nausea and vomiting.


UV radiation levels vary depending on location, time of year, time of day, cloud coverage and the environment. Sun protection is recommended whenever the UV index level reaches 3 and above. At that level, UV radiation can damage skin and eyes. It may also cause skin cancer, including dangerous malignant melanoma.

To check the UV levels for the day, go to the SunSmart UV Alert, which is issued by the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM). UV levels for the day are also reported in newspapers, weather forecasts and the SunSmart website.


Use sun protection whenever the UV index level reaches 3 and above. When the UV Index is generally below 3, sun protection is not required unless you are near highly reflective surfaces such as snow, are outside for extendedperiods or the UV reaches 3 and above.


Sunburn can affect anyone, but lighter-skinned, fair-haired people are at greater risk of getting sunburn because the melanin they produce isn't as protective as that produced by people with darker skin.

A combination of the five sun protection measures can reduce your sunburn risk.

* Slip on sun-protective clothing. Make sure it covers as much skin as possible.  

* Slop on SPF 30+ broad spectrum sunscreen. Apply 20 minutes before you go outdoors and reapply every two hours.  

* Slap on a hat that protects your face, head, neck and ears.  

* Seek shade.  

* Slide on sunglasses. Make sure they meet Australian Standard AS1067.


Other suggestions on how to avoid getting sunburnt include:


* Don’t assume that sunshine is ‘safe’ when it doesn’t sting your skin – that sting you can feel is infrared radiation (heat), not UV radiation.  

* UV radiation levels aren’t linked to temperature. Don’t rely on the temperature to gauge when you need sun protection. Check the UV level each day and when it’s 3 and above, Slip! Slop! Slap! Seek! and Slide! .  

* Many Australians get sunburnt around water, at the beach or pool. If there is no shade, you’ll need to protect yourself in other ways.  

* You can get sunburnt when you’re relaxing and taking it easy, such as watching outdoor sports or picnicking at the park, as well as while playing sports.  

* Winter activities, such as snow skiing and snow-boarding, pose a high risk of sunburn because UV radiation is more severe in alpine regions than at sea level. Snow is also very efficient at reflecting UV radiation.  

* What many people assume is windburn is actually sunburn. The wind doesn’t burn the skin, UV radiation does.  

* A tan offers a small amount of sunburn protection (around SPF 3), but doesn’t protect against skin and eye damage or the risk of skin cancer.  

* Babies under 12 months should not be exposed to direct UV and should be well protected from the sun. Always try to keep babies and children in the shade and use clothing to cover most of their body. Use small amounts of child-friendly sunscreen on uncovered areas such as the face and hands whenever your child is exposed to the sun.




Sunburn can take days or weeks to heal depending on the severity. Mild sunburn can be treated at home, but severe and blistered burns require prompt medical attention.

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


* Drink plenty of water, because you’re probably dehydrated as well as sunburnt.  

* Gently apply cool or cold compresses. Alternatively, bathe the area in cool water.  

* Avoid using soap, as this may irritate your skin.  

* Apply products to help soothe sunburn, such as Aloe Vera (e.g. Elostin Aloe Vera Gel, Banana Boat Aloe Gel, Palmers Aloe Vera Formula) or Solarcaine. Choose spray-on solutions rather than creams you apply by hand.  

* Don’t pop blisters. Consider covering itchy blisters with a wound dressing and apply an antiseptic cream to newly revealed skin to reduce the risk of infection.  

* Pain permitting, moisturise the skin. This won’t stop the burnt skin from peeling off, but it will help boost the moisture content of the skin beneath.  

* Take over-the-counter painkillers, if necessary.  

* Keep out of the sun until every last sign of sunburn has gone.


You should see your doctor or seek treatment from your nearest hospital emergency department if you experience severe sunburn with extensive blistering and pain, sunburn over a large area, dizziness or altered states of consciousness, fever, nausea and vomiting.


The sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the major cause of skin cancer and the best natural source of vitamin D. Vitamin D is a hormone that controls calcium levels in the blood. It is needed for healthy bones and muscles and for general health. Vitamin D is made in our bodies through a series of processes that start when our skin is exposed to UV. It is important to take a balanced UV approach to help with vitamin D levels while minimising the risk of skin cancer with appropriate sun protection measures.

For most people, adequate vitamin D levels are reached through regular daily activity and incidental exposure to the sun. During summer, the majority of people can maintain adequate vitamin D levels from a few minutes of exposure to sunlight on their face, arms and hands or the equivalent area of skin on either side of the peak UV periods (10am to 3pm) on most days of the week.

In winter, where UV radiation levels are less intense, people may need about two to three hours of sunlight to the face, arms and hands, or equivalent area of skin, spread over a week to maintain adequate vitamin D levels. People with naturally very dark skin may need three to six times this exposure and supplements may be required.

It should be noted that regular use of sunscreen has been shown to have little effect on vitamin D levels. People who use more sunscreen spend more time in the sun, so naturally they will have higher vitamin D levels.