Dermatologists Share Their Tips For a Fast Sunburn Recovery

woman blocking sun with hand The Best Ways to Help Treat a Sunburn | Spotlyte

Careful as you may be, sunburns can happen to the best of us. Provided you aren’t outright skipping the crucial, skin-protecting step of slathering on SPF, sunburns are usually the result of user error. Maybe you forgot to reapply often enough (put it on every two hours!), perhaps you used a product that’s expired or isn’t high quality, or you just inadvertently missed a few spots here and there, probably because you didn’t use enough of your preferred sunscreen.

If you didn’t apply your SPF quite as liberally as you ought to, you’re not the only one. “Most people only apply 25% to 50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen,” notes Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. “The guidelines are to apply one ounce, enough to fill a shot glass, to the exposed areas of the face and body, and a nickel-sized dollop to the face alone.” (So, if you’re spending a long day at the beach and are bringing an average bottle of sunscreen — which tends to be around four ounces — you should finish the entire tube by applying and reapplying.) If you're using a spray formula, you should apply it until an even sheen appears on the skin

No matter the cause of your sunburn, accidents happen. And, if you have one, you know that it can be a particularly painful and damaging accident to contend with. Depending on the severity of your burn, expect your sunburn to last anywhere from three days to a week, followed by some peeling that can last for two weeks. (Severe sunburns might last for more than a week, and usually require medical attention, so call your doctor if you’re experiencing dehydration, fevers, or blistering over a large surface area.) But as you recover from your sunburn, you don’t have to pay penance for your skin sins by being in constant pain! You have some surprisingly simple options to reduce discomfort, redness, and inflammation at your disposal. Keep reading to discover dermatologist-recommended advice for soothing sunburned skin.

Sunburn Treatment Tip #1: Take an Over-the-Counter Pain Reliever Within 24 Hours

One of the best things you can do for a sunburn to lessen the tingly pain and discomfort is to take oral anti-inflammatory medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Dr. King recommends taking it within the first 24 hours of being burned, as doing so can help reduce inflammation throughout your body and give you some relief. You can continue taking these over-the-counter medications as long as your sunburn lasts — just make sure to adhere to the directions and follow any orders from your doctor. 

Editor's Note

As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new treatment, medication, or supplement.

Sunburn Treatment Tip #2: Make Your Baths and Showers Cool

You’ve likely noticed that taking your typical hot showers is pretty uncomfortable on your sunburned skin right now. Instead, opt for lukewarm or cooler water when washing up. “Take a cool shower with gentle soap substitutes, such as Dove’s® Beauty Bar or Nourishing Body Wash,” suggests Dr. King. These formulas are ultra-moisturizing and mild, so won’t strip your already-irritated skin. “Afterward, pat dry, leaving a little water on the skin,” she says. 

Doing this will temporarily give your hot, sunburned skin some relief, and can even help draw out some of the heat over the longer term. However, if you’re hooked on the soothing powers of cool water and are tempted to use ice to help calm your sunburn, think twice: Applying ice directly to the skin, especially compromised skin, could potentially damage it and even cause an ice burn. Obviously, you don’t want to be burned twice over!

Sunburn Treatment Tip #3: Rely Closely on 3 Soothing Topical Ingredients 

As far as topical ingredients, there are a few mainstays that can help treat a sunburn. Aloe vera is one of them; just make sure to mind the ground rules. “Aloe vera has soothing properties, but make sure you look for pure aloe vera,” warns Morgan Rabach, MD, a NYC-based board-certified dermatologist. “Many are mixed with alcohol, which can sting a sunburn.” Some are also formulated with menthol for a minty-fresh effect, but this can ultimately be drying or irritating to your damaged skin.

Both dermatologists agree that another one of the best things for sunburns is hydrocortisone 1% cream, which you can pick up at any pharmacy. “I recommend mixing it with Aquaphor Healing Ointment® and applying liberally,” says Dr. Rabach. “This combination can soothe inflammation and help the skin feel less dry and tight.” We recommend applying this skin-soothing cocktail until your sunburn has dissipated. 

Our last popular ingredient for sunburn treatment is milk. Using milk as a skincare product may sound strange, but this homeopathic remedy may be legitimate. “The enzymes provide gentle exfoliation,” Dr. King notes. Additionally, milk contains minerals — such as magnesium, a topical antiinflammatory — that may help soothe inflamed skin.  Dr. King recommends soaking a clean washcloth in milk and then applying it to the burned area for 15 minutes at a time.

Fascinatingly enough, your choice of milk should vary depending on where you are in the sunburn healing process. That’s because while fat is moisturizing, it also holds heat well. So, if you’ve just gotten burned, opt for low-fat at first, then “switch to full fat milk as the active phase of the sunburn resolves and the dry and peeling phase begins,” suggests Dr. King.

That all said, you don’t have to entirely abandon your skincare routine in favor of aloe, hydrocortisone, and milk. Gentle moisturizers, such as CeraVe® Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($11) are also OK. For the duration of the burn, skip greasy or oil-based creams (which can trap heat), physical scrubs, and active ingredients (not including SPF). That includes vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and retinol.

Editor's Note

Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.

Sunburn Treatment Tip #4: Drink Lots of Water

An unexpected side effect of sunburns is that your body increases its reliance on its water reserves, which could leave you parched, inside and out. “More moisture will be lost from the burned skin than from normal, healthy skin because of the inflammation and impairment of the skin barrier,” explains Dr. King. Be extra mindful of your water drinking habits and put a renewed focus on keeping hydrated as you heal. 

Sunburn Treatment Tip #5: Don’t Pick, Peel, or Pop

A sunburn is skin damage, plain and simple — and it’s crucial that you don’t cause further damage by picking at your skin as it heals. A natural part of that healing process is peeling skin. It might be tempting to assist, either by manually peeling it off or exfoliating, but letting your body take over here is one of the best things for sunburns. It’s difficult to tell which peeling areas are easy to slough off and which are still firmly attached to healthy skin. Don’t risk it!  

Blisters also ought to be left alone. Think of as a biological dressing over particularly damaged areas. “Blisters are your body’s way of preventing germs from entering and the fluid inside works to prevent further damage to the skin below and to allow the skin to heal,” explains Dr. King. “In certain cases, if the blister is very tense and painful, or when a person has a compromised immune system and is at risk for infection, a doctor may choose to use a sterile needle to allow fluid to drain.” You heard it from her: Leave any popping to the pros. 

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