If you’ve ever spent a day at the beach with no sun protection, you know how painful sunburn can be. The UV radiation from sunlight can inflame your skin cells, causing a slew of uncomfortable symptoms like itching and soreness. It can also increase the risk of certain skin cancers.
For a minor sunburn, there are some remedies you can use to find relief as the skin heals. However, if your sunburn is severe, you should consider seeing a doctor for treatment. Here’s how to tell the difference and what you can do to ease the pain.
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Many of us are familiar with the most common symptoms of a minor sunburn. They are:
But in some cases, these are just the tip of the iceberg. If you have these symptoms coupled with a rash, fever, or other flu-like symptoms, you may have a more severe type of sunburn called sun poisoning.
What is sun poisoning?
Sun poisoning can be exacerbated by certain medical conditions that make your skin more sensitive to the sun. For example, people who have lupus, eczema, or rosacea are particularly at risk for sun poisoning. This is also true for people taking certain antibiotics or acne medications.
If you have symptoms of sun poisoning or develop swelling or pus-filled sunburn blisters, you should see a doctor immediately. Sunburn blisters are a sign of a second-degree sunburn and can cause scarring or infection if not treated properly.
What is hell’s itch?
In some extremely rare cases, a sunburn may cause unbearable, uncontrollable itching. Far from the small prickings of a normal sunburn, hell’s itch is an agonizing condition that feels like “fire ants under the skin.” The best thing you can do for this is to treat it like a normal sunburn and wait it out. Learn more about what causes hell’s itch, and how to treat it.
Though it may take a few hours for you to notice the telltale redness that comes with sunburn, you should try to treat it as soon as you experience symptoms.
Here are seven proven home remedies for reducing the pain and discomfort of sunburned skin:
- Use a cool compress: The first step to treating a sunburn is to cool it down as soon as possible. This helps reduce inflammation and could even prevent the development of symptoms like itching. To make a cool compress, put a few ice cubes in a plastic bag, wrap it in a soft cloth, and hold it to the sunburnt area.
- Take a cold shower or cool bath: Taking a cold shower or bath will also help cool your skin down. Just be sure not to use any harsh soaps while you are bathing, since these can irritate the skin further.
- Moisturize your skin: Sunburn dehydrates your skin, which breaks down it’s protective skin barrier. Keeping your skin moisturized can help rebuild this barrier so that your sunburn can heal more quickly. It can also help reduce symptoms like peeling and itchiness. For the best results, use a fragrance-free moisturizer right after you’ve stepped out of the shower. Showering opens up your pores, which allows your skin to absorb moisture better.
- Take an anti-inflammatory: NSAID pain relievers, like aspirin or ibuprofen, will help reduce inflammation. This can reduce the most painful symptoms of sunburn, like swelling and blistering.
- Apply aloe vera:Aloe is one of the best natural remedies for sunburn. It contains a number of soothing ingredients, including skin-healing vitamins and anti-inflammatory compounds. Applying aloe vera to the affected area can even stimulate the production of collagen, which helps your skin heal faster.
- Stay hydrated: Since sunburn can dehydrate you, it is important to drink plenty of water as your sunburn heals. This will help your skin replenish lost moisture.
- Apply a hydrocortisone cream: You can purchase hydrocortisone cream without a prescription. This medication helps treat various skin conditions and may reduce the redness and swelling for a particularly bad sunburn if applied soon after symptoms appear.
What doesn’t work
There are a number of myths out there about what will help with sunburn. But many are not backed by science and some may even make your sunburn worse. Don’t try the following at home:
Vinegar: One popular folk remedy is vinegar. But vinegar has a pH level of between 2 and 3, meaning that it’s highly acidic. This acidity can “damage the already compromised skin barrier” of sunburnt skin, says Carol Cheng, MD, dermatologist. Damaging this barrier can lead to more inflammation and pain.
Vinegar also contains ingredients like acetic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, and malic acid, which can cause a chemical burn on sensitive skin.
Coconut oil: Though many people swear by coconut oil, stay away from it if you have a sunburn. Applying coconut oil to a fresh burn can trap heat on your skin, which prolongs inflammation. It is also an ineffective moisturizer since it is too thick to penetrate the skin barrier.
Taking a hot shower: Though some people believe that hot showers may soothe the pain of a sunburn, hot water may actually worsen the burn. Putting hot water on your skin will increase the diameter of your blood vessels. This allows for increased blood flow to the surface of your skin, which will only amplify the pain.
Shaving cream: Though shaving cream does have moisturizing properties, it isn’t the best thing to put on sunburn. Shaving cream also contains a number of chemicals that may irritate inflamed skin. It can also aggravate blisters.
To avoid getting a sunburn in the first place, you should take precautions before exposing yourself to the UV radiation from the sun. Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself from the sun and reduce the risk of skin cancer.
- Stay out of the sun during peak hours. This is usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., but it may vary depending on your location and the time of year. Even if you’re indoors or in a car, you should avoid long periods of direct sunlight without protection since you can still get sun damage through a window.
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that is at least SPF 30. Broad-spectrum means that it protects against both UVA and UVB radiation. Reapply sunscreen every two hours, and more often if you are swimming or sweating. This is important,even if you have dark skin and don’t usually get sunburned.
- Check the expiration date on your sunscreen.Over time, the active ingredients in sunscreen that protect against UV light will break down making sunscreen less effective. If your sunscreen has expired, buy a new bottle for optimal protection.
- Avoid tanning and tanning beds since there is no such thing as a healthy tan. Dark, sun-tanned skin is a sign of sun damage. You should especially avoid indoor tanning, as just one tanning bed session could increase your chances of a deadly type of skin cancer called melanoma by 75%.
- Wear protective coverings like wide-brimmed hats or long sleeves to protect your skin. You should also wear sunglasses to shield your eyes from getting burned.
The best thing for your skin is to avoid getting sunburned in the first place. The sun damages skin cells, causing wrinkles and premature ageing. Repeated sun exposure can even put you at risk for melanoma and other skin cancers.
Just be sure to cover up while you are outside and keep reapplying sunscreen throughout the day.
This article was medically reviewed by Trevan D. Fischer, MD, a surgical oncologist and assistant professor of surgical oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Centre in Santa Monica, California.