It’s a good idea to wear sunscreen when you’re out. But sometimes you forget to put it on, or the weather turns out to be sunnier than expected. A few hours later, your skin is red and painful. It happens. Nearly a third of adults in the U.S. get sunburned each year.
Products with aloe vera, a succulent plant that grows in dry and hot climates, are often used to help with sunburns. But how effective are they?
What to Know About Sunburns
When your body is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light, it makes more melanin to protect itself. Melanin is a natural skin pigment that gives it color. More melanin creates a tan, but this protection is limited -- what happens next is a sunburn.
Any part of your body that’s exposed to UV light can burn. This includes your scalp, lips, eyes, and earlobes. If you’re covered up, but your clothing allows some sunlight through, you can still get a sunburn.
Benefits of Using Aloe Vera Gel on Sunburns
Aloe vera contains the natural compound aloin. Lab tests show that aloin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
Other research shows that aloe vera is useful specifically for treating burns. A review of four studies involving 371 people found that aloe vera is effective for treating first- and second-degree burns. First-degree burns are mild ones where the burn doesn’t blister. Second-degree burns involve redness, blistering, and swelling.
In a small study, scientists found that 97.5% aloe vera gel could reduce skin redness caused by UV light exposure.
Limits of Using Aloe Vera Gel on Sunburns
Aloe vera can help treat a burn after it’s happened and help the skin repair itself, but it’s still better not to get burned in the first place. In 2013, sunburn was the cause of about 33,800 visits to the emergency room. Repeatedly getting sunburns is also directly related to worse odds of getting skin cancer. If you’ve had many blistering sunburns in the past, your doctor may recommend yearly skin exams to track your risk for skin cancer.
Aloe vera is not a replacement for medical care if the burn is bad. If you have a severe sunburn, you should see your doctor. Signs of a severe sunburn include:
- Large areas of blistering
- No improvement within a few days
- Signs of infection like red streaks or pus
Get medical help right away if you’re sunburned and you also have:
Risks of Aloe Vera Topical Use
Aloe vera is generally safe to use on skin. There have been a few reports of itching, burning, and eczema.
To be safe, you can do a test on a small area of your skin. Wait for 1-2 hours to see if you have an allergic reaction to the aloe vera. Don’t use it if you have a reaction.
Where to Find Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe vera gel is scooped out of the plant’s thick leaves. You can do this yourself by growing your own aloe vera plant. It’s also becoming more common to find individual leaves in the produce section of grocery stores. To extract the gel, simply slice the outer layer of skin and scoop out the gel. Take care with the knife, as the gel makes the leaf very slippery.
If you don’t have an aloe vera plant and can’t find leaves, you can buy aloe vera gel products in stores. With commercial products, opt for the highest concentration of aloe vera possible. A small study found that 70% aloe vera cream had no effect on sunburns.
Other Treatments for Sunburns
Sunburn treatments can ease any swelling and pain, but they won’t heal your skin.
Some other ways you can get some relief from a sunburn are:
- Put a clean towel dampened with cool water on sunburned skin. Or soak in a cool bath with about 2 ounces (60 grams) of baking soda added in.
- Relieve pain with over the counter medicine like ibuprofen or naproxen.
- Drink water to prevent dehydration.
- Avoid popping blisters to prevent infection. If a blister breaks on its own, wash the area gently with mild soap and water. Put on an antibiotic ointment and cover with a bandage that won't stick.
- Moisturize peeling skin to ensure the new layer of skin is healthy and nourished.
- Stay out of the sun to protect your burn from getting worse. If you do have to go out, be sure to cover up.
- Avoid products that have "-caine" ingredients like benzocaine. These creams can cause an allergic reaction or irritate your skin.