11 Tips to Treat a Sunburn & Minimize Long-Term Skin Damage

Expert Advice to Cure a Sunburn

You know not to let yourself get sunburned—they’re painful, ugly, and are a major cause of pre-mature aging, dark skin spots and skin cancer like melanoma. But sh*t happens.  

So when you find yourself sunburned, you want to make sure you treat it swiftly and properly not just so that you can manage the discomfort and speed up the healing process, but also to minimize the long-term damage the burn can cause. To properly treat a sunburn, follow these expert-recommended tips:    


React Quickly

It’s pretty simple:  Sunburns equal skin damage. “The sun has both UVA and UVB rays,” explains dermatologist Debra Jaliman. “UVB rays cause burning as well as tanning … the burning that UVB rays cause warns you that you’ve had too much exposure.”  

A sunburn is generally a first-degree burn: inflamed, pink, tender, warm to the touch skin—similar to a burn you might get from touching a hot pan or spilling hot coffee on yourself.  

As soon as you see your skin beginning to get the slightest bit red/pink, reapply sunscreen and get out of the sun. It can take between four and six hours for the burn to start showing symptoms, so definitely don’t wait until it looks really red to react.  

And while most sunburns can be treated at home (using the tips below), sometimes you need to see a doctor. If you’re experiencing fever or chills, prolonged severe pain, nausea, or if you have a significant number of blisters, see your doctor.    


Cool Bath + Compresses

As soon as you’re able to, take a cool bath or shower (using mild soap and no loofahs or harsh cleansers) to help manage the heat your skin is producing, control the inflammation, and begin to relieve some of the pain and sensitivity.  

You can also take a washcloth, soak it in cool water and apply it to the skin for at least 10 minutes for the same effects.  

An ice pack wrapped in a cloth can be a great help when you’re trying to fall asleep on uncomfortable sunburned skin—just stick to the gel type packs so you don’t wake up in a bed full of melted ice.  


Aloe Vera

Licensed esthetician Daniela Ferri recommends aloe as an all-natural treatment for sensitive skin because of its anti-inflammatory, redness-treating properties. While it’s great for sensitive skin, it’s also perfect for remedying sunburns.   While the research is still being established, it is believed that aloe may also help your skin cells regenerate and heal at a faster pace.  

Side effects are few and far between, so you can apply aloe as much and as often as you need for relief, however your skin should start feeling better after a day of treatment.    


Coconut Oil
Coconut oil’s not only great in stir-fry; it’s an all-natural beauty product that can provide a moisturizing protective layer to the skin. So as your skin begins to heal, you may want to apply coconut oil to keep it moisturized.  

However, if you have acne-prone, oily skin, reach for your usual moisturizer instead, as coconut oil can clog your pores.  

(Read here for info on using coconut oil as a beauty treatment.)        


Oatmeal Bath

You may have taken one of these when you were little suffering from chicken pox, but they’re also a great way to calm itchiness and irritation as your sunburn begins to heal.  

Dissolve a packet of colloidal oatmeal into a warm bath (you can find packets at the drug store, bath product aisle, etc.). Soak once or twice a day, as needed, to calm your skin. Bonus: Your skin will be super soft for days.    


Hydrocortisone Cream

To help counter pain, sensitivity and swelling, and to promote healing, you can also try applying an over-the-counter, low dose hydrocortisone cream to your burn. Go for a 0.5 to 1 percent hydrocortisone cream and apply once or twice per day until improved.  

Be careful not to apply hydrocortisone cream to areas that are blistered or where you have open sores!    


OTC Pain Relief

Over-the-counter pain relievers can also be helpful. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen are good for managing the pain as well as reducing inflammation (which is good because that may help minimize the long term damage caused by the burn). Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help with pain, but does not have anti-inflammatory properties.  

If you are still experiencing pain after a couple days, it’s best to book an appointment with your doctor to make sure you don’t need a stronger prescription treatment.    


Stay Hydrated

If you’ve been in the sun long enough to get burned, you’ve also likely been out enough to get dehydrated (rapid sun exposure can also cause increased fluid loss through your skin). That’s a problem for so many reasons, including the fact that your skin needs to be well hydrated to properly begin to repair the sunburn damage.  

You need at least eight glasses of water per day, and a few more if you’ve been perspiring (like out in the sun or through exercise).    


Managing Sun Blisters

People with severe sunburns or particularly sensitive skin may experience blisters along with their burn. It’s important to let these heal on their own. Try to avoid touching them or letting them rub against any type of garment.  

If a blister bursts, treat it with antibacterial ointment and cover with gauze. See your doctor if the blisters show any signs of infection such as green or yellow discharge, extreme itching, excessive swelling or pain.    


Managing Peeling

A few days after you’re sunburned, you may notice the top layer of your burned skin getting tight, cracking and peeling off. This process may last for a few days.  

Although itchy, it’s important not to scratch or try to rub/peel off the shedding skin as that can result in further patchy discoloration and possibly even infection.  

Instead, stave off any discomfort and promote a new layer of healthy skin growth by continuing with the oatmeal baths and using aloe and a moisturizer.    


Avoid the Sun

After you’ve been burned, you’re going to need to stay out of the sun—getting a burn on top of a burn is another world of pain.  

Try to avoid going outside when the sun’s rays are the strongest: between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. While outdoors, keep to shaded areas as much as possible and wear loose fitting clothing that covers your skin and a hat to protect your scalp and face when you go out. And obviously wear an SPF with UVA and UVB protection.    


Bonus Tips: How to Avoid a Burn

Better than treating a sunburn is preventing one in the first place. Here are the best tips for avoiding a burn and all the nasty premature aging, sun spots, and skin cancers that come along with it:    

Check Your Sunscreen & Apply It Properly

For daily use, dermatologist Debra Price recommends a product containing SPF 30 that protects against UVA and UVB rays, and be sure to apply properly. “It’s not only what you apply, but how you apply it that counts,” Dr. Price explains. “It is important to apply an adequate amount (a shot glass full to cover an average adult body) of sunscreen daily, 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure.”  

If you’re going to be in the water, make sure you’re using a waterproof product, and no matter what you’re doing outside, be sure to re-apply your sunscreen every two hours.  

Remember to purchase new sunscreen at least every three years (or check the expiration dates), as it does have a shelf life limit.    


The Sun and Medications

Certain medications such as tetracycline, retinoids, sulfa-based drugs and certain pain relievers and antibiotics can predisposition you to getting sunburns even after short periods of sun exposure.  

Check the labels on your medications for sun warnings, and if you’re taking any of these, be sure to be extra careful with your sunscreen, limit time outside, and stick to the shade.    


Tanning Beds
Thinking a tanning bed is a safer way to avoid sunburn is dangerous and couldn’t be farther from the truth.  

“Tanning beds have UVA rays,” explains dermatologist Debra Jaliman. “You don’t feel burning from UVA rays, and thus people are more likely to stay under UVA lamps for longer periods of time.”  

The sun expels UVA and UVB rays, but the UVA exposure is much more concentrated in a tanning bed than from the sun. These types of rays penetrate more deeply into the skin causing damage to the collagen and elastin, and leading to pre-mature aging, skin discoloration and skin cancer like melanoma.   While you may not feel yourself getting burned, know that you are doing the same—or worse—damage as you would with a direct-sun sunburn.  

Dr. Jaliman also warns, “Studies have shown that tanning bed use increases your chances of developing malignant melanoma by 75 percent.”  

To read more on the perils of tanning beds including how they can entice addiction, check out: http://www.chickrx.com/articles/tanning-addicts    


Sources: CDC (2011) Sunburn. Retrieved: cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2012/chapter-2-the-pre-travel-consultation/sunburn; Mayo Clinic (2013) Sunburn Treatment. Retrieved: mayoclinic.com/health/sunburn-treatment/AN01423 and mayoclinic.com/health/first-aid-sunburn/FA00028; NIH (2013) Aloe Vera. Retrieved: nccam.nih.gov/health/aloevera; Mayo Clinic (2013) Sun Allergy. Retrieved: mayoclinic.com/health/sun-allergy/ds01178; SkinCancer.org. Retrieved:
http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/sunburn/five-ways-to-treat-a-sunburn
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