General Information

Sunburn and skin damage are caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet radiation, through time exposing your skin in the sun or under a sunlamp. Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is sub-classified as UVA, UVB and UVC rays. However, it is only UVA and UVB that we need to protect against as these rays pass through the ozone layer.

You may not realise you are burning since your skin only becomes red and painful later on. Minor sunburn appears as pink or red skin and more serious sunburn as blistered and sometimes peeling skin.

Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. It is important to protect your skin when it is exposed to the sun, because of the risk of skin cancer. Long-term sun exposure also causes premature skin ageing.

Good sun care includes:

  • trying to stay out of the sun between 11 am and 3 pm, particularly during summer
  • wearing a hat (wide-brimmed to protect neck), wrap-around sunglasses that block UV light, and protective clothing or shade structures
  • using sunscreen to prevent skin burning
  • after-sun skin care; check with your pharmacist
  • remembering that reflection from water, snow and sand can cause sunburn
  • protection of lips with special lip sunscreens; sunburn can reactivate a cold sore on the lips
  • reapplication of lip balm frequently, as it tends to be licked off
  • wearing hats in the sun; many schools now insist students wear hats during summer
  • wear clothes that meet the UV Clothing Standard to offer sun protection, such as dark, tightly woven fabrics (UPF 15 to 50+)
  • following the SunSmart message: ‘slip, slop, slap, seek and slide’

Artificial tanning

  • many people still consider that tanned skin looks healthy and attractive. Artificial suntan products may provide this look without the risk of prolonged exposure to the sun
  • most artificial tanning products will not protect against exposure to UV radiation from the sun
  • some artificial suntan products do contain a sunscreen but further sunscreen will need to be applied throughout the day
  • sun beds are not safe alternatives for tanning

See Your Pharmacist or Medical Professional

  • if you have severe or extensive sunburn, blisters or extreme pain
  • if you have other symptoms, such as feeling unwell or light-headed, if you are vomiting or have a fever or headache
  • if blisters look infected, e.g. the skin may be broken or oozing
  • if you are burning more easily than before, especially with minimal sun exposure
  • if you take other medicines; some medicines, such as antibiotics, can cause skin to burn more easily
  • if the person with sunburn is a young child or elderly person with moderate to severe sunburn; they may need treatment for dehydration
  • if you have a mole that has changed in size, colour, shape, height, surface texture or sensation; this could be a sign of melanoma, a common and dangerous skin cancer
  • Australia and New Zealand have the highest incidence and mortality rates of melanoma in the world. It is the most common cancer in young adults and its development is linked with sunburn in childhood. In 2005, approximately 1200 people died from melanoma in Australia

Treatment Tips

  • sunscreen 'sun protection factor' (SPF) indicates how protective a sunscreen is. It should not be used as a guide to determine how long an individual will take to become sunburnt
  • the recommended SPF is at least 15, and higher for fairer skin, such as SPF 20 to 30
  • the highest SPF for sunscreen in Australia is 30+. This does not give double the protection of SPF 15+
  • sunscreens do not completely protect you from the sun and should be used in conjunction with protective clothing, a hat, sunglasses and shade
  • everyone should apply sunscreen, especially infants, and including people with suntans
  • sunscreens use chemical or physical barriers to filter out and protect the skin from burning
  • broad-spectrum sunscreens filter out both UVA and UVB rays
  • apply sunscreen liberally 20 to 30 minutes before going outside, and allow to dry as a protective layer on skin. Reapply 15 minutes after this to ensure coverage
  • reapply frequently, at least every two hours, or more often if perspiring, exercising or swimming
  • apply children’s sunscreens more regularly, e.g. every 20 to 40 minutes, because children are more active and sunscreen is more likely to rub off
  • apply sunscreen even if it is overcast, as UV rays can pass through cloud
  • cream-based sunscreens tend to be more resistant to removal by water than alcohol-based products
  • water-resistant products retain their sun protection for at least 40 minutes in water
  • be aware that oily products may prevent sweat from evaporating, which can increase the risk of over-heating, especially in humid conditions
  • keep babies out of the sun and use clothing or hats for protection
  • for babies under six months old, it is better to use a sunscreen that is specially formulated for babies’ skin, and apply particularly to those areas not covered by clothing; check with your pharmacist
  • people with acne should avoid oil-based products as these can worsen the acne

Treatment Options

Most products have a combination of chemical and physical barriers

Chemical sunscreens

[GENERAL SALE]
e.g. cinnamates, salicylates, benzophenones, dibenzoylmethanes and the less commonly used para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and derivatives (Alpha Keri Lip Balm SPF30, Aquasun Range, Cancer Council range, Sunsense range, Hamilton range, Banana Boat range, UV Triplegard range, Reef Sun Tan Oil SPF 15)

  • chemical sunscreens absorb harmful UV light to protect the skin against sunburn
  • chemical sunscreens usually contain more than one chemical, with different protective effects for UVA and UVB, to give broader protection

Physical sunscreens

[GENERAL SALE]
e.g. Sunsense Low Irritant SPF 20, Hamilton Sensitive SPF 30+, Zinc Cream

  • physical sunscreens reflect sunlight rather than absorb it    
  • zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are particularly effective, especially for the nose and ears

Treatment for mild sunburn

  • stay out of the sun and use extra protection when you do go outdoors
  • wear loose, soft clothing to avoid irritation of the burnt skin
  • use a moisturiser to rehydrate and cool the skin
  • have a cool bath or put cool compresses on the sunburnt area
  • cooling water based gels can also be applied on the skin (such as SoloSite Gel)
  • drink plenty of fluids (non-alcoholic) to keep hydrated
  • local anaesthetics (see below) can give short-term relief
  • Aloe vera gel may be beneficial for short-term relief; however, as pure a gel as possible should be used (e.g. 90% aloe)
  • pain and discomfort could last a few days, and general pain relievers may help, e.g. paracetamol or ibuprofen; your pharmacist can provide individualised advice
  • keep blistered skin clean and monitor for infection

Sunburn treatment products

[GENERAL SALE]
e.g. Sunsense After Sun, Banana Boat Aloe After Sun, Pinetarsol Bath Oil

  • a moisturiser will not prevent peeling but will help relieve the irritation of dry, flaky skin
  • pinetarsol can reduce itching and help with dry skin

Local anaesthetic products

[GENERAL SALE]
e.g. Soov Burn, Solarcaine

[PHARMACY ONLY]
e.g. Paxyl Sunburn Relief Spray

  • these can be applied as ‘no touch’ sprays or creams and offer pain relief
  • some local anaesthetics may irritate skin in some patients

More Information

Availability of medicines

  • GENERAL SALE available through pharmacies and possibly other retail outlets.
  • PHARMACY ONLY available for sale through pharmacies only.
  • PHARMACIST ONLY may only be sold by a pharmacist.

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Last Reviewed: 25/09/2009

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