Sunburns happen to the best of us. No matter how high an SPF you use or how often you reapply sunscreen, small (or not so small) areas of skin always seem to evade the application process. Whether you’re as red as a lobster or just a bit toastier than you’d like to be, the inflammatory effects of too much sun can range from itchiness and tenderness to peeling and blistering. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make the healing process a bit more comfortable.
How Sunburns Happen
Before we get into the treatment options, it’s important to understand how you got here in the first place. As the Skin Cancer Foundation explains, sunburn is an inflammatory reaction to ultraviolet (UV) radiation damage to the outer layers of the skin. Both suntans and sunburns are signs of damage. But, depending on the amount of melanin a person produces, they may be more prone to one or the other. While those with less melanin (think: fair and light skin tones) might be likely to burn, no one is immune to sun damage.
The Effects of Sunburns
In the short term, sunburned skin can range from mild redness to severe blistering. Even light burns can peel (it’s the way the body rids itself of the damaged cells), but it’s important to never peel the skin yourself. It will flake off naturally.
If you are dealing with a sunburn that is blistered or covers a large portion of the body, you should seek medical attention. “If the skin gets infected — indicated by red streaks from the blister or swelling or pus — call a doctor,” says Cheryl Karcher, MD, a board certified dermatologist in New York City. “If you have a fever, headache, severe pain, dehydration, confusion, nausea, or chills, you should also see a doctor.” Otherwise, you can likely follow the steps below to care for your skin at home.
While sunburns are a temporary condition, they cause long-lasting damage to the skin. Not only does sun damage result in fine lines, wrinkles, and sun spots, but UV radiation from the sun is also the leading cause of skin cancer.
How to Relieve and Treat Sunburns
Staying burn-free is always the preferred option, but properly caring for a sunburn is the next best thing. Assuming your condition does not rise to the severity described above, here are steps you can take to relieve and treat sunburns:
1. Seek Shade Immediately
Let’s start by stating the obvious: As soon as you realize you’ve gotten too much sun, it’s time to seek shade. Additional sun exposure can lead to second-degree burns (or worse), which are more difficult to treat and increase your risk of skin cancer and melanoma. Immediate signs of a severe sunburn include fever, chills, blisters, dizziness, and fatigue and require medical attention.
When you are sunburned, you are more at risk for dehydration. As a result, it is important to rehydrate and replenish electrolytes by drinking extra liquids. But not any beverage will do. Avoid diuretics, like alcohol and caffeine, which are dehydrating.
3. Cool the Affected Area
You can treat sunburns with the same cool water and compresses you would employ for any other burn. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends taking frequent cool baths or showers to help relieve the pain. Just make sure to pat (not rub!) yourself dry — rubbing can further irritate the burn. If you’re looking for soothing and itch relief, Dr. Karcher recommends oatmeal baths (the Aveeno Soothing Oatmeal Bath Treatment For Itchy, Dry Skin is her favorite) or adding two-ounces of baking soda to the tub.
Immediately after applying a cool compress or taking a cool shower, apply a gentle moisturizer to the skin. Putting the product on damp skin will help trap moisture and ease dryness. For added sunburn relief, store the moisturizing cream (Dr. Karcher likes Hawaiian Tropic After Sun Lotion and Aquaphor Healing Ointment) in the refrigerator. The chilled lotion will feel refreshing against the warm area of skin.
5. Apply Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe vera is a tried-and-true sunburn treatment for a reason. Clinical evidence suggests that, when applied topically, the clear gel from the aloe vera plant can promote the healing of first- and second-degree burns (i.e. mild to moderate sunburns). Like the moisturizer hack, storing it in the fridge offers additional relief. Dr. Karcher suggests applying Banana Boat Soothing Aloe After Sun Gel after a bath or shower.
6. Take Pain Relievers, as needed
Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory oral medications and topical hydrocortisone steroid creams can both be incorporated into a sunburn treatment protocol. They won’t make your sunburn go away, but they will offer pain and itch relief. While aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil®) will reduce discomfort or swelling, lidocaine and benzocaine should be avoided. According to Dr. Karcher, they can cause an allergic reaction and do more harm to the skin.
7. Wear Loose, Organic Fabrics
If you’ve ever had a bad sunburn, you probably know that some fabrics feel better than others on the highly sensitized skin. “I like a very loose, light cotton garment for a sunburn,” Dr. Karcher says. On the flip side, steer clear of synthetic fabrics, like polyester, that don’t breathe. “These would make you sweat and could make things worse,” she shares. When outdoors, wear clothing that is tightly woven and has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of at least 50. It’s the best way to protect active sunburns and prevent future ones.
8. Resist the Urge to Peel
Peeling and blistering are both side effects of moderate to severe sunburns, and it’s important to resist the urge to pick or peel the damaged skin. “If the skin blisters, do not pick it,” Dr. Karcher warns. Indicative of a second-degree burn, “the actual blisters will help your skin heal and protect you from infection,” she explains. If infection is a concern, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics or Silvadene ointment, and Dr. Karcher also recommends taking oral antihistamines — like Allegra®, Zyrtec®, or Benadryl® (at night) — to ease the itchiness that may lead to open blisters.
9. Avoid Getting Sunburned Again
It’s unrealistic to think you’re never going to go outside again (or is it in this COVID-19 era?). Regardless, you have to plan accordingly and practice safe sun to avoid getting burned. Follow our guide to applying sunscreen, which advocates:
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher
- Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming
- Seek shaded areas and avoid direct sunlight (especially between 10am and 4pm)
- Wear protective clothing, like sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, and long sleeves
If you’re still craving a sun-kissed glow, we get it. There are plenty of ways to achieve it sans sun, and these self tanners for face and body are sure to have people inquiring about your beach vacation — whether you took one or not.
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