Yes, Your Houseplants Can Get Sunburnt, Too

updated Oct 26, 2022
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Credit: Kristan Lieb

Summer is in full swing. It is hot. The sun is blazing. While your traditional summer BBQs and beach visits may look different this year (or might just be non-existent), one thing remains the same: If you’re going outside, you’re going to want to load up on sunscreen.

I always have to be extra mindful to limit my sun exposure in the summer (even with SPF)—and your houseplants are the same way! “If you move your plants out into the sun without acclimating them first, sunburn is going to be the result,” says Lisa Eldred Steinkopf, The Houseplant Guru and author of several houseplant books, including her most recent one, “Houseplant Party: Fun Projects & Growing Tips for Epic Indoor Plants.”

Here’s how to keep your houseplants from getting sunburned and what to do if it happens.

Signs of Houseplant Sunburn

Plant sunburn (also known as leaf sunscald or scorch) occurs when a plant is abruptly exposed to a brightly-lit area. This can occur when you’re moving your houseplants outdoors for the summer or when you are bringing them home from a greenhouse or plant shop that provides different lighting than your home provides.

“Sun scorch can also happen indoors if you have a shade-loving plant in a window that is too sunny for that particular houseplant,” says Raffaele Di Lallo, plant doctor and houseplant expert of Ohio Tropics

Di Lallo says that plant sunburn can happen very quickly—in a matter of hours—and the first sign will be large white areas on the leaves. “The leaves will appear as if they’ve been bleached and washed out,” he says. Steinkopf adds that this discoloring will only appear on the top leaves of your plant. 

“If it is sunburn and not something else, it will only be on the top leaves or leaves that are most exposed to the sun. The leaves underneath will not be affected,” she says. “If the sunburn is extensive, the bleached areas of the leaves will turn brown and may become crispy.”

How to prevent houseplant sunburn

It’s important to note each of your houseplant’s light exposure needs. Some love sunshine, while some thrive better with just a sprinkling of light.  

If you have a sun-loving plant and you’re moving it outside for the summer or bringing it home from a plant shop for the first time, the plant needs to slowly build up to brighter sun exposure. Key word: slowly.

“The best prevention is to slowly acclimate your plants to a different light situation than the one they are in,” says Steinkopf.

Di Lallo adds, “Even for sun-loving plants, you must acclimate your houseplants to brighter light by a process called hardening off.” Think of this as your houseplant building a base tan. 

To get your plant to harden off, Di Lallo suggests placing your plant outside in the full shade for several days, then introducing it to an hour or two of morning sun, since it is more gentle than mid-day sun. Then gradually increase the plant’s sunlight exposure over two to three weeks.

What to do if your houseplant is already sunburned

Unfortunately, there’s no aloe vera to put on your plant’s sunburn, and it won’t eventually fade into a tan. “If you find your plant has been burnt, it is best to cut off the damaged leaves or trim them if you can,” says Steinkopf. “They will not heal or turn green again.”

Then move your plant into a less bright area—choosing filtered light over the direct sun—whisper your deepest apologies to it, and resume proper care.  

Your best option is to encourage it to thrive moving forward and learn from your mistakes. Your plant will forgive you—just remember next time that plants need sun protection, too.