What is Sunburn?

Sunburn is skin damage from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. Most sunburns cause mild pain and redness but affect only the outer layer of skin (first-degree burn). The red skin might hurt when you touch it. These sunburns are mild and can usually be treated at home.

Skin that is red and painful and that swells up and blisters may signify that deep skin layers and nerve endings have been damaged (second-degree burn). This type of sunburn is usually more painful and takes longer to heal.

Risk Factors

Skin Type
A person's skin type affects how easily they can be sunburned. People with fair or freckled skin (less melanin), blond, or red hair, and blue eyes usually sunburn more easily. A person's age also affects how their skin reacts to the sun. The skin of children younger than 6 and adults older than 60 is more sensitive to sunlight.

Time of day
The likelihood of sunburn is greater between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the sun is at its strongest.

Proximity to reflection
Being on or near reflective surfaces such as water, snow / ice, white sand can increase concentrated sunlight exposure.

UV exposure increases ~4% for every 300 m (1,000 ft) gain in elevation as the atmosphere thins.


Signs & Symptoms

  • Skin redness and mild tenderness (first-degree)
  • Extreme skin redness and painful to touch. Blisters and subsequent peeling can occur (second-degree)
  • Heat exhaustion and heat stroke may also be present


First-Aid for Sunburn

If a person begins to show signs of sunburn, have them move to a shaded area and apply or reapply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater. If their skin is uncomfortably tender, a mild anaesthetic lotion like Solarcaine® can be used to soothe the irritation.


Preventing Sunburn

Sunlight is necessary for human health, so it's not always possible (or wise) to avoid the sun. It's best to protect exposed skin when spending time in the sun by:

  • Wearing a hat
  • Wear long sleeves
  • Apply sunscreen with SPF 30
  • Wear sunglasses

Adapted from:
Sunburn. MyHealth Alberta.