Does bad sunburn go away?

Sunburn is a common condition that most people will experience at some point in their lives. It occurs when the skin is exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or artificial sources like tanning beds. Mild sunburns cause temporary redness, pain, and irritation, while more severe burns can lead to blisters, swelling, fever, headache, and skin peeling. Though sunburns may be painful and uncomfortable, in most cases they tend to fade and heal within a week. Here we’ll look at how long sunburn lasts, what factors affect healing time, methods for relieving discomfort, and how to avoid bad sunburn in the future.

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is damage to the outer layer of skin, the epidermis, caused by overexposure to UV rays. There are three types of UV rays:

  • UVA – Cause skin aging and wrinkling
  • UVB – Burn the outer layer of skin
  • UVC – Absorbed by ozone layer, don’t reach Earth’s surface

UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburns. When they penetrate deeply into the epidermis layer of skin, they generate free radicals that damage skin cell DNA, membranes, and proteins. The body senses this damage and triggers inflammation as it tries to heal the skin. This causes fluid to leak from blood vessels into the skin, resulting in redness, swelling, pain, and heat. If there is severe and prolonged exposure, the damage may extend deeper into the second layer of skin, the dermis. This can destroy elastic fibers and cause blistering.

Severity levels of sunburn

Sunburns can be classified by severity:

First-degree sunburn


  • Pain and tenderness
  • Redness
  • Warm to touch
  • Dry, peeling skin in a few days

This is the mildest type of sunburn, akin to a minor thermal burn. The redness is caused by swollen blood vessels. Peeling occurs as the epidermis sheds damaged skin cells.

Second-degree sunburn


  • Blisters
  • Extreme redness and pain
  • Fever, chills, nausea
  • Severe swelling
  • Skin peeling

This is a more severe burn that impacts the deeper epidermis layer. Blisters form as the damaged skin detaches from healthy skin underneath. Fever and chills indicate an immune response to the skin damage.

Third-degree sunburn


  • White, brown, or yellow skin discoloration
  • Severe pain
  • Blisters and skin peeling
  • Infection
  • Dehydration
  • Fever and chills
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Low blood pressure

This most serious sunburn extends into the dermis, destroying sweat glands, oil glands, hair follicles, and nerve endings. The burn may appear leathery with discoloration. Dehydration, infection, and low blood pressure can lead to heat stroke and require hospitalization.

What factors affect sunburn healing time?

How long it takes for sunburn to heal depends on several factors:


Milder first-degree burns heal faster than deeper second and third-degree burns. Superficial redness and tenderness may resolve in 3 to 6 days. Blistering second-degree burns need 5 to 8 days. For more severe burns, healing the skin damage and swelling may take up to 2 weeks.

Skin type

People with lighter skin tones are more vulnerable to sun damage and likely to experience longer-lasting burns. Darker skin has more protective melanin.


Areas that are more frequently exposed to sun, like the shoulders and face, tend to get less severe burns than sensitive areas like the chest and back. Healing times are shorter where skin is accustomed to sun exposure.


Children and older adults have thinner skin that is more sensitive to burning. Their skin also tends to recover more slowly than younger adults.

Individual factors

Things that impair the skin’s health and healing process can prolong sunburn duration. These include age, skin disorders, taking medications that increase sun sensitivity, and conditions that suppress the immune system. Staying hydrated and eating a nutritious diet supports faster healing.

Treatments to relieve sunburn discomfort

There are several methods to treat sunburns to alleviate the pain and itching while the damaged skin recovers:

Cool baths

Take lukewarm baths or dampen burned skin with cool, wet towels to provide relief from the sting. Don’t rub the skin – gently pat it dry. Running cool water over a sunburn can be very soothing.

Moisturizing cream/aloe vera

Applying moisturizer to sunburned skin helps ease tightness and discomfort. Look for creams containing ingredients like aloe vera, soy, vitamins E or C, and green tea extract. Avoid products with petroleum, benzocaine, lidocaine.

Over-the-counter pain medication

For moderate pain, take OTC options like ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin. They reduce inflammation and swelling. Acetaminophen can also help alleviate aching. Don’t give aspirin to children.

Hydrocortisone cream

Applying 1% hydrocortisone cream to sunburn can help diminish swelling and redness. It suppresses the immune response. Do not use over large areas or for more than 7 days.

Natural remedies

Some natural options to try are calendula, chamomile or peppermint, green tea, and cucumber. Dabbing milk on sunburn may offer some relief too.

When to seek medical treatment

Most mild sunburns can be managed at home with conservative treatment. See a doctor if:

– Blisters cover a large portion of the body
– There is severe swelling, redness, and pain
– You develop chills, dizziness, headache or vomiting
– Sunburn doesn’t improve after 48 hours

Severe sunburn may require stronger prescription medications or professional wound care to prevent infection and scarring. IV fluids and electrolytes may be given for dehydration.

Sunburn stages and what to expect

Sunburn recovery goes through several distinct stages:

Initial burn phase – Days 1-2

Skin becomes inflamed and tender within a few hours after sun overexposure. Redness and pain worsens over the next 48 hours. Swelling may cause skin to feel tight. Small fluid-filled blisters may emerge.

Peeling phase – Days 3-7

Damaged skin cells in the epidermis die off and start sloughing away. This leads to skin peeling, starting around day 3. Peeling skin may itch, but resist scratching. Gentle application of moisturizer and aloe vera can soothe itching.

Proliferation phase – Days 8-21

In this phase, skin works to repair itself by growing new epidermal cells. Redness gradually fades. Skin may look blotchy and uneven temporarily as melanin production ramps up. Apply sunscreen regularly as skin is still highly sensitive to UV at this point.

Maturation phase – Days 21-28

This is when skin rebuilding completes. Surface skin layers fully mature and return to normal. Redness disappears completely. Dryness and itching resolve. Skin regains its regular coloration.

For mild sunburns with no blistering or complications, the progression through healing stages is usually shorter. More severe burns take the full four weeks to run their course. Continue caring for skin with gentle cleansing, moisturizing, and sun protection.

Can sunburn cause permanent skin damage?

In most cases, sunburns do fully heal and leave no permanent marks on the skin. However, there are a few scenarios where sunburns can cause lasting effects:

– Sunburns that destroy the deep dermis skin layer may lead to permanent scarring.
– Severe blistering can occasionally cause permanent skin discoloration (darker or lighter patches).
– Studies show people who experience 5 or more blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence have a significantly higher lifetime risk of developing melanoma skin cancer.
– Frequent unprotected UV exposure and sunburns break down collagen fibers and damage skin cell DNA, causing premature aging and wrinkling.

Using vigilant sun protection practices can help minimize the chances of permanent cosmetic changes and skin cancer risk from sunburns. See a dermatologist promptly if you have concerns about sun damage spots or growths on sun-exposed areas.

Can tanning help a sunburn? What about tanning beds?

No, tanning should be completely avoided when you have a sunburn. Tanning is the skin’s response to additional UV exposure. It will worsen sunburn pain and inflammation and prolong healing. Tanning bed UV rays can actually be more intense than the sun, so they would further damage sunburned skin.

Any UV exposure should be avoided until a sunburn has fully resolved. Having a tan does not prevent future sunburns either. While tanned skin may not burn as quickly, severe burns can still happen after lengthy time in the sun. There is no such thing as a “protective” tan – tanning indicates sun damage is occurring.

How to prevent bad sunburns

The best way to avoid adverse effects from sunburns is prevention:

Limit time in midday sun

Seek shade between 10am and 4pm when UV rays are strongest. Use an umbrella at the beach.

Wear protective clothing

Hats, rash guards, and UV blocking clothing provide physical sun barriers.

Apply broad spectrum sunscreen

Use SPF 30 or higher and reapply every 2 hours of sun exposure.

Avoid tanning beds and sun lamps

These emit intense UV radiation that easily leads to burning.

Watch for sunburn on overcast or cool days

Clouds scatter UV so it enters skin from all angles. Wind and water cool skin, masking burning sensation.

Avoid photosensitizing substances

Some topical products and medications can increase sun sensitivity.

Check UV index for burn time

Online maps indicate intensity of sun’s rays to help plan activities.

Know your skin type and sensitivities

Light complexions are more prone to burning.


In summary, sunburn is skin damage caused by overexposure to UV radiation. Mild sunburns usually heal within 5 to 7 days. More severe burns with blistering may take up to 2 weeks or longer to fade, depending on depth. While the redness and pain do gradually subside, it’s important to take care of sunburnt skin with cooling compresses, moisturizer, pain relief, and anti-inflammatory creams. Severe burns can potentially cause permanent cosmetic changes or increase skin cancer risk over a lifetime. Stay vigilant about sun safety to prevent bad sunburns. Wear protective clothing, seek shade during peak hours, and apply regular sunscreen when spending time in the sunshine.

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