Look, we have all been there. It doesn’t matter if you know how to prevent it, or even if you tried, sometimes it just happens. It’s painful, uncomfortable, and irritating - especially the stares and questioning of how much pain you’re in. But, arguably the most annoying part of being sunburnt is figuring out how to make it better quicker. Besides the immediate discomfort, it’s bothersome to think about the trauma your skin has gone through and the potential repercussions you will face.
For the purpose of lessening your pain and helping the skin heal quickly and safely, this article will share dermatologist-recommended advice on how to treat sunburns, both immediately, and in the days and weeks to follow. We will also share the things that you shouldn’t be doing if you have a sunburn.
Right After A Burn
As soon as you realize you have a sunburn, you are going to want to cool and rinse the affected area. If this area is most of your body, you may want to hop in the shower, but if the burn is contained to a smaller area this may just mean a rinse in the sink with cool water for 15-20 minutes. Alternatively, you can use a cold compress, but you should avoid icing the burn because it could cause further damage – ironically, frostbite. The cold water works to subdue the redness and inflammation that occurs around a sunburn by decreasing any excess blood flow to the skin.
Sun exposure in general, especially a sunburn, can cause dehydration so it is critical that you drink plenty of water to replenish what’s lost.
The Hours and Days Following A Burn
Until the sunburn is gone, wear loose clothing that covers the burn from further exposure and use lotion. The right type of lotion is crucial, as some may only present you with further complications. The right type of lotion should provide relief and reduce soreness.
For thousands of years, the tropical medicinal plant we know as aloe vera has been used to treat skin conditions. The most widespread use for it today is as a sunburn relief go-to, so much so that it is sometimes referred to as the “burn plant.” Safe to say, this method of treating sunburn is tried and true.
According to the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, the clear gel that fills the leaves of the aloe plant promotes the healing of first- to second-degree burns, including mild to moderate sunburns. Other studies have shown that it helps with wound repair, in general. A more recent study found that aloin - a compound in aloe - is responsible for the anti-inflammatory benefits. Aloe vera can also help to retain moisture in the skin and prevent the peeling that often occurs after a sunburn.
The best source of aloe vera gel is directly from the plant itself. However, if you don’t grow your own at home, then you are going to want to check the ingredients of the product you are looking at and opt for the option with the highest percentage of aloe. The key here is to look for more aloe and less supplemental ingredients. Avoid additives and perfumes.
Pro Tip: For an extra cooling sensation, keep your aloe in the refrigerator!
There are tons of sunburn relief topicals on the market, but many dermatologists recommend hydrocortisone cream for persisting pain and soreness after a sunburn.You can either get hydrocortisone over-the-counter or with a prescription, and it’s good for calming things down quickly – soothing both pain and irritation.
Whether you get your cortisol OTC or via a prescription is going to depend on the severity of the sunburn. If you feel that your sunburn is intense, visit your primary care physician or dermatologist for a prescription of a potent cortisone. However, if your sunburn is mild-moderate, an OTC hydrocortisone cream should do the trick! There are even OTC options which offer cortisone and aloe in one product, a 2-for-1 if you will.
Cream for the DIYers
The experts claim that oatmeal is a lifesaver for a severe sunburn. It reduces the urge to itch, moisturizes, and has anti-inflammatory properties that soothe irritation. This is especially true of colloidal (or finely ground) oatmeal. If your sunburn covers most of your body, you can take an oatmeal bath but for isolated burns you can use a paste.
How to take an oatmeal bath:
Take a cup of oatmeal and put it in a blender or food processor and grind it until it is a very fine, consistent powder. Evenly pour the finely ground oatmeal into a running bath of lukewarm water, and use your hand to distribute the powder as you pour. The bath water should be milky white. Let yourself soak in the tub for 20 minute and pat - don’t rub - yourself dry when you are done!
How to make an oatmeal paste:
Grind ½ cup of oats in a food processor or blender until it is a fine powder. Combine the finely ground powder with ¼ cup of milk. We recommend soy milk because it is a natural anti-inflammatory and soothes a burning sunburn. Add a few tablespoons of honey and mix until it is a paste-like consistency. Finally, you can apply the paste to your skin. If you are worried about the paste touching your clothing, you can even apply gauze over the paste until you have finished allowing it to soak in – after about 20 minutes.
What NOT To Do When You Have A Sunburn
Don’t Use Petroleum Jelly
Petroleum jelly, with its greasy gel-like consistency, may seem like a good alternative to lotion for cooling and moisturizing the skin. However, petroleum jelly doesn’t actually moisturize at all, but creates an occlusive barrier between the skin and air. It can block your pores, trapping in heat and sweat, and lead to infection. It is also not sterile, providing the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. To steer on the safe side, if it’s oil-based, do not use it!
Don’t Use Anything Ending In ‘Caine’
When treating your sunburn, you’ll want to steer away from -caine products (e.g. benzocaine) because these can irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction.
Don’t Play With Blisters and Peeling Skin
Despite the urge to pop a juicy blister or peel flaky skin, we advise you to resist temptation. Shedding your skin and forming blisters is your body’s way of healing, and when you interrupt this process with picking and prodding, you risk getting an infection or creating scarring. By covering your sunburn in loose clothing - which you should be doing anyways - it should be easy to resist the temptation to play with your skin. (Out of sight, out of mind).
Until a magic pill is invented, there is no real cure for a sunburn. The only true fix is time. However, there are things within your control that can either help or harm, shorten or extend the healing process. Odds are, you’ll see another sunburn in your lifetime, whether it's a spot that you missed when you were applying sunscreen or a cloudy day that caught you by surprise. But hopefully, the next time you find yourself the victim of a sunburn, you’ll be ready for it. Good luck!