Remedies for Sunburn

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 14, 2020

A s unburn happens when unprotected skin is exposed for too long to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. The skin starts to become inflamed and begins to redden — and in serious circumstances, blisters may form. You can get a sunburn in as little as fifteen minutes.

The dangers of sunburn can extend far beyond the temporary pain it inflicts on your skin. Sunburn has been shown to accelerate skin aging and is the leading cause of skin cancers like melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma.

Not everyone has the same level of risk when it comes to sun exposure. The amount of melanin you have — the pigmentation of your skin — greatly affects how seriously you can get sunburn and your likelihood of developing skin cancer. In general, people with lighter skin are more at risk of sunburn and developing skin diseases than people with darker skin.

After a sunburn, your skin begins to heal by peeling — this is your body getting rid of damaged and dead skin cells. While it is tempting to peel this dead skin, it is best to let it come off naturally.

Remedies and Treatments for Sunburn

The severity of the damage that sunburn will cause depends on several factors, like the intensity of the sun and the length of time of exposure. Once you have been exposed to the sun for long enough that it will cause sunburn, there is not much that you can do to limit the damage done to your skin. Sometimes, it can take a couple of days to find out how bad the damage is and how to treat your sunburn effectively.

What you can do, however, is take certain actions that will help reduce the pain, limit the swelling, and eventually heal the skin back to normal. The first thing you should do is get out of the sun and find some shade, preferably indoors. 

Cool Down

As soon as you’re able to get under some cold water, the better. When you’re done, don’t completely dry yourself. Leaving some water on your skin will help keep it cool and moisturized.

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Moisturize with Aloe Vera 

Apply a moisturizer with aloe vera to the entire affected area. You may want to apply hydrocortisone cream — a topical treatment to treat itching, redness, and swelling — to a specific area if it is feeling particularly uncomfortable. Do not treat sunburn with “-caine” products — such as benzocaine — as these numbing products may irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction.

Even if you can buy many aloe vera–containing products and hydrocortisone creams over the counter, it’s still wise to talk to your doctor and ask for advice on what type of moisturizer or soothing solution to use.

Use Over-the-Counter Medication

To help alleviate the pain, reduce any swelling or redness, and provide relief to any discomfort, you should consider taking aspirin or ibuprofen.

Leave Blisters Alone 

If the skin blisters, it means you have a second-degree sunburn. Do not pop or pick at the blisters because they help your skin heal and protect you from infection. While they may look concerning, blisters are a natural part of the healing process. Only consult a doctor if the blisters don’t heal or get worse.

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Drink More Water 

Sunburn dries out the skin, which forces it to pull water from the rest of the body. Therefore, drinking plenty of water and other fluids to help prevent dehydration.

Add Baking Soda to Your Baths

You can add another soothing element to your baths by sprinkling in baking soda.

To use baking soda, add about 2 ounces of it to the warm water of your bath before you get in the tub. Baking soda — also known as sodium bicarbonate — has antimicrobial properties.

Add Colloidal Oatmeal to Your Baths

Colloidal oatmeal is another element you can add to cooling baths to soothe sunburns. You may also use a colloidal oatmeal cream.

Before soaking in your tub, sprinkle in the recommended amount of your over-the-counter colloidal oatmeal or 1 cup of the homemade equivalent — uncooked, whole oats ground to a powder using a blender or food processor. Research suggests that oatmeal has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

Make Chamomile Tea

Chamomile tea has anti-inflammatory properties that can alleviate sunburn. Brew some for you to drink — which will also help soothe your entire body — and save some to cool, soak on a washcloth and apply directly to the affected area.

When to See a Doctor

With a little treatment and time, the majority of sunburns will heal completely on their own. However, you should contact your doctor if the injury persists or becomes worse. Let them know how long you’ve been sunburned and what you’ve done to treat it before arriving at their office.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology Association: “How to treat sunburn.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Sun Safety.”

Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology: “Oatmeal in dermatology: a brief review.”

International Journal of Cancer: “Melanoma and Sun Exposure: An Overview of the Published Studies.” 

Journal of Food Science: “Antimicrobial Activity of Sodium Bicarbonate.”

Mayo Clinic: “Sunburn - Diagnosis & treatment.”

Molecular Medicine Reports: “Chamomile: A Herbal Medicine of the Past with a Bright Future (Review).”

Photochemistry and Photobiology: “The Protective Role of Melanin Against UV Damage in Human Skin.”

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