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Here’s How to Treat a Sunburn According to Experts

A woman outside with a bad sunburn.
vchal/Shutterstock.com

No one enjoys a sunburn. They’re painful, and we’re all well aware by now of the negative effects they can have on our health. However, sometimes you still forget to apply (or reapply) your sunscreen and burns happen. Here’s what the experts advise you to do whenever you get a bit too “well-done.”

We asked dermatologists, Dr. Hadley KingDr. Karan Lal, and Dr. Jeannette Graf, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, about the best things you can do to heal a sunburn.

What Happens to Your Skin When It’s Sunburnt?

Mallika Home Studio/Shutterstock.com

You probably already know that a sunburn is your body’s attempt to protect itself from UV rays.

Lal explained that everyone has what’s called a minimal erythema dose, which is the amount of energy required to cause your skin to turn red. Once UV ray exposure goes beyond your minimal erythema dose, your skin starts trying to protect itself.

First, your body produces melanocytes, pigment-making cells that secrete melanin to protect your skin from damage. These are what cause people to tan. Your body, however, can only make so many at one time. Once its production level is maxed out, your skin begins to burn.

As it becomes inflamed, blood flows to the area and increases the swelling. As this is happening, mutations form in your DNA and increase your risk for skin cancer. Awesome!

How to Treat a Sunburn

A bottle of aloe vera gel is surrounded by pieces of aloe, and a tube of moisturizer sits next to a jar of cotton buds.
PURA D’OR/La Roche-Posay

When it comes to basic sunburn care, our experts agreed that there are a lot of different avenues you can take. From lotions to relieve the burn to anti-inflammatory medications that will reduce swelling, you can minimize the pain.

The best thing to do is keep the area well moisturized. Our experts all recommended using emollient, non-greasy moisturizers to help protect the skin barrier.

La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Baume B5 Soothing Multi-Purpose Balm

Lal recommended La Roche-Posay's Cicaplast Baume to help heal the skin.

You should also drink tons of water to keep the skin hydrated and avoid exacerbating it further with dryness. This will also help with the peeling.

“Your swollen skin is going to fall off,” Lal said. “At which point, you are at risk for infections.”

When it comes to soothing the burning pain, cooling ointments, DIY treatments, and anti-inflammatory medication were all recommended.

Aloe vera, in particular, is an excellent ingredient to soothe the skin because it can also offer anti-inflammatory benefits. Lal recommends placing it in the fridge for a bit first, so it will feel extra cooling and calming on your skin.

PURA D'OR Organic Aloe Vera Gel

A classic sunburn soother.

King and Graf both recommended using compresses of low-fat milk to soothe a sunburn, as it contains proteins, vitamins, and minerals that will work as anti-inflammatories. Place a compress on your skin for 15 minutes at a time.

“The fat content of milk cleanses and moisturizes,” King said. “But it can hold in heat, so switch to full-fat milk as the active phase of the sunburn resolves and the dry and peeling phase begins.”

You can also use OTC anti-inflammatories, like aspirin or ibuprofen. King advised taking them within the first 24 hours of getting burned, and Graf recommended that you can continue to do so every four to six hours while dealing with the inflammation.

Warning: You should always check with your physician before taking any medication or supplements, particularly if you’re currently on any medications or have a health condition.

How to Avoid Further Sun Exposure

A woman wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat and a woman wearing polarized cat-eye sunglasses.
FURTALK/LVIOE

Now that you know how to treat your sunburn, it’s also important to know a few things you should avoid while it heals.

Obviously, the most important thing to avoid is any more sun, especially between the peak hours of 10 a.m.-2 p.m. When you have to go outdoors, wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses to protect your face.

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And, of course, don’t forget to wear and regularly reapply that sunscreen.

“Reapplication is key to avoiding damage to the skin,” Graf said. “When reaching for a sunscreen, it is important to grab one that is SPF 30 or higher, and in the summer, I would go for an SPF 50 plus.”

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Even indoors, you should continue to wear sunscreen.

Lal and King advise against using any harsh cleansers or exfoliants (both chemical and manual) when you have a sunburn. King recommended Dove’s Nourishing Body Wash to keep your skin hydrated, as it won’t strip it and lead to increased dryness. It’s also helpful to avoiding showering or bathing in water that’s too hot or cold.

Dove Deeply Nourishing Body Wash, 33.8 Oz. Pump

Won't further strip sunburned skin.

The final part of the healing process is when your starts to peel. This means you’re shedding the damaged layer. However, to prevent infection and further dryness, try to avoid picking at or scratching your skin during this time.

How to Minimize the Damage

Drops of an antioxidant serum are on a counter, and a bottle sits beside it.
Paula’s Choice

Unfortunately, when it comes to skin damage from the sun, you can’t really stop it from occurring after you’ve already been burned.

However, King said you can lessen it with antioxidants, which can help neutralize free radicals from UV rays, and DNA repair enzymes, which can help repair any damage.

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Help fight free radical damage.

If you get burned, though, don’t freak out quite yet. Lal explained that skin damage and the risk of cancer from sunburn are multiplicative, meaning each time you get burned, those risks increase.

This is why the most important thing you can do to prevent both is to avoid getting sunburned in the first place.

How to Prevent Getting a Sunburn

Two tubes of HydroBoost Sunscreen.
Neutrogena

Again, it likely won’t surprise you to hear that all three of our experts said wearing sunscreen is the most important thing you can do to prevent getting a sunburn. However, King pointed out that not everyone applies it correctly.

“Most people only apply 25-50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen,” King said. “The guidelines are to apply one ounce—that’s enough to fill a shot glass—to the exposed areas of the face and body, a nickel-sized dollop to the face alone, or, if you’re using a spray, apply until an even sheen appears on the skin.”

When it comes to choosing a sunscreen, all of our dermatologists advised that you look for one that contains SPF 30 or above, and that you always reapply. While these same directions will likely be printed on your sunscreen bottle or tube, you should generally reapply it every two hours or so.

You also want to make sure you cover any commonly missed areas with your sunscreen, such as the tops of your ears, your hairline, your neck, the backs of your hands, and the tops of your feet.

Finally, you can even incorporate sun-blocking clothing into your protection routine, as well. At the very least, a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and sunglasses are always a good idea.

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UV protection from head to toe.


Unfortunately, sunburns happen, and they’re never pleasant. If you’re looking to ease that sting or do some damage control, these tips from dermatologists will steer you in the right direction.

Shea Simmons Shea Simmons
Shea Simmons is an Atlanta-based writer who has written about everything from whether Crisco is a good moisturizer to how to KonMari your space. Her work has appeared in Bustle, My First Apartment, and Make It Grateful. Read Full Bio »
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