Sunburn is skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays. Too much exposure to UV light can make your skin red and painful. This may later lead to peeling or blistering.
Sources of UV light include:
- tanning beds
- phototherapy lamps – these are used in light therapy to treat conditions such as jaundice in newborn babies (yellowing of the skin)
Sunburn often occurs when the sun’s rays are intense. However, there is also a risk of getting burned by the sun in other weather conditions. For example, light reflecting off snow can also cause sunburn. A cloudy sky or breeze may make you feel cooler, but sunlight can still get through and damage your skin.
Melanin is a pigment that is produced when your skin is exposed to sunlight. It absorbs the UV radiation found in sunlight to help protect your skin. This results in your skin becoming darker, which is a sign that it has been damaged by UV rays.
Melanin stops you burning so easily but it does not prevent the other harmful effects of UV radiation, such as cancer and premature ageing.
Who is at risk of sunburn?
Everyone who is exposed to UV light is at risk of getting sunburn. However, the less melanin you have, the less protected you are against the effects of UV light.
For example, if you have fair skin or red hair, or if you have not been in the sun much, your melanin levels will be low, which means that your risk of burning more quickly rises.
Mild sunburn usually goes away around four to seven days after exposure to UV rays. However, frequently exposing your skin to UV rays for long periods of time increases your risk of developing various skin problems, such as:
- prickly heat – an itchy, red rash that occurs when you sweat more than usual
- early ageing of the skin and wrinkling
- solar keratoses – rough, scaly spots on the skin due to damage from UV light exposure
- skin cancer
The long-term consequences of UV exposure can be prevented by using a good-quality sunscreen. Sunscreen is available from pharmacies and supermarkets, and comes in a number of different strengths.
There are a number of ways that you can prevent sunburn and stay safe while you are out in the sun. For example, you should:
- wear clothing to protect your skin from UV rays, such as a long-sleeve shirt, trousers and a wide-brimmed hat
- wear good-quality sunglasses to protect your eyes from UVA and UVB rays
- keep babies and children out of direct sunlight
- use sunscreen that has a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 (use a higher SPF for fair and sensitive skin), and reapply it frequently (see below for more information)
- seek advice immediately from your GP if you notice changes to any of your moles – for example, a change in their size, colour or texture
Most people do not apply enough sunscreen to their skin. For sunscreen to be effective, it is very important that you apply a generous amount to your skin before going out in the sun. Reapply it regularly (at least every two to three hours) and after going in the water.
It is important to remember that while spending prolonged periods of time in the sun can cause sunburn and skin damage, spending a small amount of time in the sun can be beneficial as it provides your body with vitamin D.
Vitamin D helps to control the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, which is needed to keep bones and teeth healthy.
A vitamin D deficiency (having too little) can prevent your body from absorbing calcium and phosphate. This can result in conditions such as rickets (bone deformities) in children and osteomalacia (weak bones) in adults.
Most people can get the vitamin D they need by eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting a little sun. However, some people may need to take vitamin D supplements. These groups include:
- those who are 65 years old and over
- children up to 1 year- To ensure that ALL babies get enough vitamin D they should be given 5 micrograms (5?g) of vitamin D3 every day from birth to 12 months, whether breastfed or formula fed or taking solid foods.
- all pregnant and breastfeeding women
- people who are unable to go out in the sun, such as those with health conditions that keep them housebound for long periods
- people from ethnic minorities with darker skin whose bodies produce less vitamin D – for example, those of African-Caribbean and South Asian origin