The sunburn

In case of sunburn (Erythema solare, UV erythema) the skin is damaged by UV-B radiation, which occurs naturally in sunlight or is used artificially, for example in the solarium.

This damage to the skin can be divided into degrees similar to injuries to the skin caused by burns:

  1. The most common form of burn caused by UV light, the first-degree burn, results in skin that is red, swollen, itchy and even painful.
  2. Second degree burns are characterized by blistering of the top layer of skin.
  3. Third-degree burns, which are usually so painful that they require medical attention, are so damaged that they can no longer heal without consequences, which leads to the formation of scars.

People with lighter skin types are particularly prone to developing sunburn, as their skin has less self-protection than is the case with people with darker skin types. With those, the dye melanin is increasingly formed in the skin to protect against UV radiation, which makes the skin appear brown and thus protects it from UV rays.

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Skin itches after sunbathing

Some people have very sensitive skin. Various creams, fragrances, preservatives, textiles or the like can cause irritation and itching. The sun can also be the cause of itchy skin. For many people this is difficult to understand at first, as solar radiation is associated with positive properties. However, many people are familiar with the so-called "sun allergy". In technical terms, this is called polymorphic light dermatosis. It is a kind of allergic reaction to UV radiation. It is the body's own substances, so-called autoantigens, that cause this skin reaction. Typically, symptoms appear several hours to days after the first sun exposure after the long winter months.

Read more on the topic: Sun allergy

The skin can have very different skin changes, such as red spots, raised nodules or vesicles, and itches very much. The skin changes differ from person to person, which is why one speaks of a polymorphic - multifaceted - dermatosis. Without further exposure to the sun, the skin changes usually heal within a week. Various options are available for treating such a "sun allergy". Consistent UV protection for the skin in combination with antioxidants helps to alleviate the reactions that occur. Special UV therapies carried out by a dermatologist can also strengthen the skin's resistance. In acute cases, creams and ointments with added cortisone are used to treat the fresh skin changes.

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You might also be interested in this topic: When does a rash need cortisone?

What helps with a sunburn?

In the case of sunburn, the skin is damaged by the strong UV radiation. In the course of an acute inflammatory reaction, various endogenous substances are released into the skin, which lead to the typical symptoms of sunburn. This also includes itching, which those affected find particularly agonizing. A good way to relieve itching is to keep the skin cool. Moist towels and quark compresses are just as suitable for this as cooling creams. Cortisone creams can also be applied to the skin to reduce inflammation, but they do not directly relieve itching.

Read more about: This is what you should do if you are sunburned

Why does the skin itch after sunburn?

If the skin is exposed to excessive UV-B radiation, the cells of the top skin layer (epidermis) damaged. If this cell defect is so large that it can no longer be compensated and repaired by the body's own repair mechanisms, the affected cells send the body's own messenger substances to the surrounding tissue. These messenger substances become Cytokines called and cause an inflammatory reaction in the affected area of ​​skin due to UV radiation (Solar dermatitis).

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The cytokines have an influence on the blood vessels that supply the affected skin area and cause them to expand and thus increase blood flow to the affected skin area. This results in the redness typical of sunburn and also causes the phenomenon that the affected skin feels hot to the touch.

The blood vessels also become more permeable, which causes fluid from the blood to enter the tissue and cause swelling.

The cytokines are also responsible for the itching and pain. The itching after sunburn can therefore be a component of the actual inflammatory reaction of the skin, but very often only sets in when healing begins, also caused by messenger substances in the blood.

Itchy skin for weeks after sunburn

The itching after a sunburn usually subsides within a few days, so it is unusual to suffer from itching for weeks afterwards. The primary cause of such an itching is no longer the sunburn, but something else. A possible cause is a sun allergy (see above) or dry skin. The skin loses a lot of water in the course of severe sunburn. Anyone who tends to have dry skin anyway can have very dry skin for weeks after the sunburn. A lack of fluid in the skin leads to itching, which is why intensive skin care should be undertaken, especially after sunburn.

Read more on the topic: Dry skin causes and care tips

Sunburn symptoms

The symptoms already described, such as redness, pain, swelling and overheating of the affected skin area, begin about four to eight hours after exposure to the sun, which means that sunburn is usually discovered late.

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However, some people notice even during exposure to the sun that the skin is tense and is too stressed by the sun.

The symptoms of sunburn usually peak in intensity 12 to 24 hours after sun exposure and then gradually subside. The phenomenon that the skin itches after sunburn can even begin after this time and persist for a longer period of time, as the itching accompanies the healing process of the damaged skin.

If untypical skin reactions such as wheals, pustules, vesicles or papules become noticeable for sunburn after the skin has been exposed to sunlight, other triggers may also be responsible.

More about this topic can be found: Rash from sun

Therapy for itching after sunbathing

Cooling gels can help

Under no circumstances should the itching be given in, as the already damaged skin will be injured even more by scratching. This creates entry portals for bacteria, which could lead to skin infections.

Distraction from the itching, for example with an exciting book or a movie, is a very effective measure.

Particularly important in the treatment of sunburn and the associated itching is the avoidance of renewed exposure to the sun by mainly staying in closed rooms or covering the burned skin areas.

The itching can be effectively relieved by cooling. For this purpose, cloths and clothing soaked in cold water are suitable, which are placed or put on appropriate parts of the body. Ice or cool packs should not be used, as the skin suffers from cold damage in addition to sunburn after a short time. However, it is possible to wrap coolpacks in towels, for example, so that there is no direct skin contact.

Today we advise against home remedies such as quark compresses. They have a good cooling effect, but the bacteria in the quark can more easily infect the already damaged skin.

Furthermore, moisturizing lotions (After-sun lotions) for relief from itching. They also cool the skin and provide the moisture it needs. This is important because the body loses fluid when sunburned, as the damaged skin cannot maintain its barrier function. Therefore it is also important to drink enough water.

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Painkillers help to further treat the itching and pain (Analgesics) such as ibuprofen or aspirin. One advantage of this is that the pain relievers not only treat the symptoms, such as itching, but also the causes, namely the underlying inflammation of the skin. They suppress the distribution of the Cytokinesthat are responsible for the symptoms of sunburn. If the itching does not subside even after a few days despite treatment, a doctor should be consulted.

After an examination, the doctor may, for example, prescribe cortisone-based ointments that relieve itching and at the same time treat the inflammation of the skin.


The inconsequential healing sunburn first and second degree usually last three to seven days. Often the top layer of skin comes off scaly from. The itching also subsides after this time and disappears by itself.

At third degree burns however remain scar back.


Sunburns also increase the risk of skin cancer through damage to the genetic make-up (DNA) the skin cells are strong, which is why adequate protection against UV radiation is very important.

Sunburn prophylaxis can be achieved with a few simple measures, the most important of which is to avoid sunbathing. Direct sunlight should be avoided during the midday sun from 12 to 3 p.m. You can do this by staying in the shade and wearing long, thin clothing and a sun hat.

Regular application of sunscreen with a sufficiently high sun protection factor is also important. To prevent sunburn, it is helpful to get your skin used to the sun slowly so that it has enough time to form the body's own sun protection pigment melanin.

Read more on this topic at: This is how you can prevent a sun allergy

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