Sunburn doesn’t just cause pain and redness. It can also cause long-term effects. Learn the risks and find out how to protect yourself.

Between the beach, the pool, and the weekend cookouts, you may be having too much fun to worry about sunburn – until that telltale stinging and redness set in. Sunburn isn’t just painful – it’s also bad for your health.

The dangers of sunburn

The sun’s rays contain two types of ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet A (UVA) causes tanning, aging skin, and wrinkles. Ultraviolet B (UVB) causes sunburn. Both can cause skin cancer. You can burn on sunny days, cloudy days, and cold days. The white sand on the beach and the white snow of winter both reflect the sun’s rays. You can burn whether you’re skiing on water or snow.

Signs of sunburn are redness and pain. You may also have swelling and blistering. A bad sunburn can lead to heatstroke and dehydration.

Long-term effects

Every time you tan or burn, DNA damage builds up in the deeper levels of your skin. Having 5 or more burns over a lifetime doubles your chances of getting skin cancer.

Other side effects of tanning and burning include premature wrinkles and age (pigment) spots. Over time, the sun can age your skin, making it tough and leathery.

Remember that your eyes can be affected, too. Too much sun can burn your corneas and lead to various eye diseases, including cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. These can cause vision loss.

The truth about sunscreen

Wearing sunscreen doesn’t always keep you from burning. No sunscreen can completely protect you from UV rays.

A sunscreen labeled “waterproof” or “water resistant” will not protect you all day. When you swim or sweat, reapply your sunscreen.

The UV index

Your local news may broadcast daily UV index reports. The higher the index, the less time it will take to burn. Here is your risk for overexposure to the damaging UV rays. The number indicates the daily UV index, followed by the degree of risk. The higher the index on a given day, the greater the need to protect yourself.

  • 0-2: low
  • 3-5: moderate
  • 6-8: high
  • 8-10: very high
  • 11+: extreme

Preventing sunburn

Follow these prevention tips:

  • Use only water-resistant or waterproof sunscreen. It should protect against both UVA and UVB rays and have an SPF of at least 15. Reapply every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating.
  • Wear protective clothing when possible. Always include a hat and sunglasses.
  • Limit sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. This is when UV rays are strongest. If your shadow is shorter than you are, get out of the sun.
  • Keep children in the shade and in protective clothing. Follow the same sunscreen rules for them that you would for yourself. Don’t use sunscreen on children younger than 6 months old. They should be kept out of the sun. If a child under age 1 gets a sunburn, call your pediatrician right away. Also seek emergency care if a child of any age has a sunburn with fever, blistering, severe pain, or lethargy.
  • Be aware that water, snow, and sand all reflect UV rays and increase your chances for sunburn.


Cool wet compresses, soothing lotions, and cool baths may help relieve minor sunburn pain. Drink plenty of fluids. For serious burns, call your doctor right away. Medication may prevent infection and help with the swelling and pain.