The Best Ways to Treat a Sunburn

Healthy Living

June 23, 2022

After a day outdoors, bright red skin is a sure sign of a sunburn. But along with your new neon glow, you may also experience pain, itching and swelling. The sooner you can find sunburn relief, the better.

In a moment of desperation, you might be willing to try any and every treatment approach on the internet. 

There’s no need to stake your healing on old wives’ tales, though.

Instead, rely on this roundup of sunburn treatment tips. It’s packed with reliable advice that’s backed by scientific research and medical expertise.

Disclaimer: the following is intended for information only and should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition — including sunburns. Please talk to a doctor if you have specific concerns about your skin (or anything else).

Know Before You Go

You might’ve heard this before: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That’s certainly true when it comes to sun damage. The best thing you can do for sunburns is to keep them from happening in the first place.

Sunscreen is your best defense against sun damage. No matter the weather, apply sunscreen daily. Some tips:

  • Covering your whole body will take about an ounce of sunscreen. 
  • Give it 15 to 30 minutes to start working before heading outside. 
  • Add a new layer every two hours. If you’re wet or sweaty, reapply after just one hour.

Choose a variety of sunblock that offers broad-spectrum coverage. The sun protection factor should be at least SPF 30, and water-resistant formulas are also helpful. Don’t forget about your face and lips, either. Use an SPF balm and a lotion designed for the skin on your face to protect these sensitive areas.

Being sun savvy is about more than just using sunscreen, though. 

When feasible and/or practical, wear lightweight layers with long pants and long sleeves to guard your arms and legs if you’re going to be outside for a while. Put on a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face, and cover your eyes with sunglasses.

Also, when possible, avoid outdoor activities during the sunniest part of the day. That’s usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

What to Do Right Away

Of course, despite your best intentions, you may end up with a sunburn. And the sooner you address it, the easier your recovery might be.

As soon as you realize that you’ve turned pink, get out of the sun. Your skin needs to cool down, and indoors is the best place for that.

Inflammation is a normal response to sun damage. Rinsing with cool water can tame the inflammatory response. You can take a short bath or shower or place a damp rag on the affected area.

Once your skin’s temperature cools down, move on to the next step. Otherwise, you’ll risk drying out your skin, which could hinder your recovery.

Gently rub moisturizer onto the burnt skin while your skin is still cool and damp. Some dermatologists recommend using a formula that contains soy, which has skin-soothing properties. Check with your own doctor for recommendations if you have allergies to soy or other specific skin concerns.

For the Rest of the Day

You need to hydrate your body from the inside, too. Pour yourself a tall glass of water and keep sipping throughout the day. Electrolyte sports drinks may be good choices as well.

If you’re in pain, over-the-counter pain relievers can help you feel better. Some, such as ibuprofen, could also help bring down the inflammation.

There are topical products that can provide relief. Aloe vera gel is a popular choice. For one thing, it’s moisturizing. Also, research shows that it has anti-inflammatory properties. Opt for pure gel if you can find it.

If your skin starts to itch, consider applying some hydrocortisone cream to specific itchy spots. This OTC ointment may provide some pain and swelling relief as well.

Stay away from benzocaine and other topical products with “-caine” in their names. You might be tempted to try them for their anesthetic properties, but the American Academy of Dermatology warns that they can cause allergic reactions or other irritation.

In the Days to Come

Healing from a sunburn can be a lengthy process. But many of the things you did to treat your burn on the first day will continue to help over the next week or so. To reiterate, here are some tips for getting through the itchy, peeling days ahead:

  • Take short baths or showers in cool water. 
  • Apply cool compresses to the skin. 
  • Moisturize frequently with lotion or aloe vera gel. 
  • Use hydrocortisone and pain relievers as needed. 
  • Remember to drink plenty of water each day!

Second-degree burns can cause blisters to develop. Leave them alone. Popping blisters could lead to an infection and even draw out your healing time. If you’re tempted to mess with a blister, use medical tape and gauze to cover the spot.

While you’re healing, be extra careful with your skin. A new round of sun damage could be especially miserable. Stay indoors as much as possible, use sunscreen and cover up if you do venture outside.

When to See a Doctor

Although sunburns can be unpleasant, most don’t require a professional’s attention. There are exceptions to that rule, though, so be on the lookout for signs that you need extra care.

A sunburn that’s accompanied by a high fever should be seen by a healthcare provider. You could also consult your doctor if you have blisters across a large area of your body. Other concerning symptoms include:

  • Dizziness
  • Chills
  • Intense pain
  • Disorientation

Finally, call the doctor if your burn hasn’t gotten any better after several days. And as always, even if you’re not experiencing these specific symptoms but something doesn’t seem right, give your doctor a call. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

As the Burn Resolves

Your skin will likely peel at some point, especially if the burn was a bad one. Peeling rids your body of the sun-damaged skin. It can be itchy and unattractive, but it’s part of the healing process.

You may notice the first flakes as soon as three days after the burn. In some cases, it may take up to a week for you to start peeling, and don’t be surprised if you’re still shedding two weeks after getting your burn.

While you can’t entirely prevent itchy, flaky skin after the fact, there are steps you can take to minimize it. For starters: moisture, moisturize, moisturize

If you’ve been keeping up with skin hydration since the first day, you may be able to keep the peeling and itchiness in check. Lotion will also provide nourishment for the new skin that’s making its way to the top.

Your fingers might be anxious to pick at the flakes and tug on the larger sections. Don’t give in to the temptation! Pulling at the damaged skin before it’s ready to fall off could cause increased irritation. You could also end up with an infection.

To reduce your discomfort — and keep yourself from picking — slather on more aloe vera gel. Its cooling effect can help alleviate the itch. You can turn to hydrocortisone cream, too, but don’t use petroleum jelly. It can actually make your peeling problem worse.

Cool oatmeal baths can provide itch relief as well. The Food and Drug Administration recognizes oats for their ability to moisturize the skin and soothe inflammation. For the least messy approach, use a colloidal oatmeal preparation that’s designed as a bath additive.

As you look through your closet, pick out your loosest, most lightweight clothes. The less your clothing rubs against your healing skin, the more comfortable you’ll be. When possible, leave your sunburned skin unbothered by clothing altogether — an easier feat when you’re chilling at home, of course.

Above all, remember this feeling. 

Don’t let yourself forget the redness, itching, pain and peeling that took over your life for a week (or more). With those memories fresh in your mind, you’ll be more likely to load up on sunscreen for your next outdoor adventure.