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It can happen to just about anyone: too much sun exposure or too little protection can lead to a painful sunburn. Beyond the pain and irritation of a burn, repeated exposure to intense UV radiation can lead to DNA damage and serious health problems, including skin cancer.
When you’re overexposed to the sun, UV radiation is actually striking the DNA of your skin cells. This causes breakages and modifications to the DNA itself. Your body responds by overproducing protective proteins, which causes the hallmark pain, swelling, and redness. You also experience indirect DNA damage when UV radiation strikes and modifies other molecules in your body. This can cause them to become free radicals, which can go on to damage DNA and many other cellular structures.
Omega 3 and 6
Fortunately, there are natural ways to strengthen the skin’s resistance to UV damage.
Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids can inhibit inflammation and raise the skin’s sunburn threshold, and even trigger the death of malignant cells.[1,2] People with higher skin omega content can endure higher doses of UV radiation before experiencing DNA damage. Dietary carotenoids, which are found in nearly all leafy vegetables, combined with omega-3 oil consumption was found to provide bare skin with as much UV protection as an SPF-7 lotion.
Flax seeds and walnuts contain more than 100% of your daily requirement of omega-3, and safflower oil is a good source of omega-6. Remember that these nutrients compete for enzymes in your body, so your intake of both must be balanced.
Natural Topical Applications
Squalene oil, when applied topically, can prevent skin cells’ membranes from being destroyed by UV light. Squalene oil can be purchased over the counter or ordered online.
Allantoin, an extract from the comfrey plant, can safely absorb a wide spectrum of UV radiation before it penetrates to a cell’s DNA. It is used in a variety of over-the-counter skin care products and is also present in plantain, which can be mashed and applied to the skin.
Other natural sunscreens include coconut oil (SPF-7) and castor oil (SPF-5), both of which are sold over the counter. They are in their healthiest form if they are expeller pressed or mechanically extracted.
Oils that are extracted with chemicals or alcohol may still contain chemical solvents in their final form on the shelf.
Soothing the Burn
If your prevention efforts aren’t enough and you have an uncomfortable burn to deal with, there are a number of home remedies to try. Few of these have been clinically tested, but are instead anecdotally reported to be beneficial.
- Aloe vera provides a cooling effect on your sunburn, and the moisturizing effect may reduce skin peeling.[6,7]
- Baking soda. Sprinkle baking soda into bath water or make a paste with water and apply to your skin.
- Cucumber. Cut open a cucumber and run over your skin.
- Milk and yogurt have been reported to offer cooling relief when applied directly to skin.
- Oatmeal. Wrap oatmeal in a cloth, wet, and apply to the skin; or pour it right into the bathtub.
- Plantain contains allantoin. Try mashing it up and applying to your skin.
- Vinegar. Mix 1 cup of white or apple cider vinegar into a tub of cool water.
- Witch hazel may reduce inflammation when applied topically.[7,8]
Never treat sunburn with butter or petroleum jelly. Further, taking a hot shower to treat sunburn has no foundation. The best bet is to keep your skin cool, moisturized, and protected.
For related reading, visit these posts:
- Instant Sunburn Relief: 9 Ways to Soothe Your Burn
- Sunburn Risks, Treatment and Prevention
- Nutritional Sunscreen: 5 Foods that Protect Your Skin From Sun Damage
This article was originally published in 2016. It is regularly updated.
1. Clin Dermatol. 2010 Jul-Aug;28(4):440-51.
2. J Korean Med Sci. 2010 June; 25(6): 930–937.
3. Dayan N. Skin aging handbook: An Integrated Approach to Biochemistry and Product Development. New York: William Andrew Inc; 2008.
4. Pharmacogn Rev. 2011 Jul-Dec; 5(10): 164–173.
5. Pharmacognosy Res. 2010 Jan-Feb; 2(1): 22–25.