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Oops! You did it again. You got so caught up in the outdoor fun you were having that you forgot to apply sunblock. Now you have the tell-tale signs of a sunburn—hot, painful, itchy skin. Not sure how to soothe it? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered (like you should have been in the first place). Try these tips for sunburn relief and you’ll be feeling better in no time.
What’s the Best Way to Treat Bad Sunburn?
Your best defense against sunburn is to avoid the sun in the first place. Try telling that to a kid on summer vacation! Barring utter avoidance (and ensuing temper tantrums), cover up when you’re outside, wear sunblock with an SPF of 15 or higher, and reapply it often. Stick to the shade for even better coverage. (For more information about sunburns, read our post “Sunburn: How Bad Is It for Your Health?“)
Need sunburn relief now? Here are 9 helpful tips to help ease your symptoms.
1. Cool down.
This should be your first line of treatment, suggests The Skin Cancer Foundation. Take a quick dip in cold water, whether it’s a pool, pond, lake, or ocean, to cool your skin. Don’t stay too long, or the sun will burn you even more. Then, cover up and get out of the sun.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR SUNBURN TO GO AWAY?
This depends on the severity of your burn. The effects of a mild to moderate sunburn appear within two hours and last anywhere from two to seven days. More severe cases may take longer to improve. Those with sun poisoning could suffer symptoms for anywhere from 10 days to up to two weeks or more.
Remember: Every sunburn causes irreversible damage. While you can soothe the effects of a burn, you can’t reverse them.
2. Make a cold compress.
Place a few ice cubes in a bowl of water and dip a cloth in to make a compress. Apply it to your skin for instant sunburn relief. Tip: Never apply the ice directly to your skin.
3. Take a bath.
A cool bath or shower will help relieve the heat and pain associated with your burn. Lukewarm temperature is best, and avoid using soaps, which could further dry and irritate your skin. Also, limit your time in the water. Staying in for too long could dry your skin even more. Tip: Add baking soda or oatmeal to the bath to help relieve inflammation and itching.
Once you’ve finished your bath or shower, towel-dry with a patting motion, ensuring you leave some water on the skin. Then, choose a fragrant-free moisturizing cream and slather yourself with it. Creams with aloe vera offer a particularly soothing effect. Tip: place the cream in the freezer before you get into the bath.
THINGS TO AVOID WHEN TREATING SUNBURN
Have a sunburn? Don’t do these things:
- Go back into the sun. Don’t get burned twice!
- Steer clear of the sun’s rays when you’re healing from a burn. If you have to go outside, cover up with long clothing, a big hat, and sunglasses. Then, sit in the shade.
- Take medications that end with -caine. Benzocaine and lidocaine are examples of drugs that can cause further irritation to your sunburn and potentially cause an allergic reaction.
5. Leave blisters alone.
As tempting as it may be, do not pop, play with or pick at your blisters. Cover them with a moist cloth and leave them to heal on their own, otherwise you could end up with an infection or permanent scarring. If your blisters are open, apply an antibiotic cream. See a doctor if they become extra painful, infected, ooze, cover a large area of your skin or if you begin to experience a fever or chills.
6. Apply a medicated cream.
Hydrocortisone cream can help reduce the swelling, redness, itchiness and pain caused by a sunburn, say both the American Academy of Dermatology and the Skin Cancer Foundation. Choose a low-dose (one percent) of over-the-counter cream and follow the directions on the tube.
7. Take an NSAID.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin have been proven to reduce swelling, decrease inflammation, and improve the negative effects of sunburn. Take them as soon as you notice symptoms for the best effects. German researchers found a marked improvement in sunburn symptoms after taking ibuprofen. Volunteers were given a dose of the medication at the time of sunburn and then again at 12, 24 and 26 hours post burn. The result: reduced redness and pain. As these types of medications can cause stomach upset, be sure to talk to your doctor before taking them.
8. Drink green tea.
High in polyphenols, a natural chemical which helps fight diseases and damage caused by UV rays, green tea offers extensive health benefits. One of the most notable: green tea can protect you against skin cancer. It does this by using its antioxidant powers to boost your immunity and prevent tumor growth.
SOURCES & RESOURCES
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UV rays literally dry us—inside and out. When you have a sunburn, your body pulls the fluid to your skin to help protect it, increasing dehydration. Add extra fluids to make up for those you’ve lost. Sports drinks (which contain electrolytes) and water are good options.
P.S.: Is coconut oil good for sunburn?
It could be. Coconut oil is high in polyphenols and fatty acids, which have antioxidant properties.
Early research on its protective effects against UV damage are promising. For instance, researchers from South Korea found that applying cultured coconut extract created both a barrier and anti-inflammatory effect on UV-exposed skin. That said, more research is needed to prove its true benefits, so use it only as a moisturizer, not sunblock.
PROTECT YOURSELF AGAINST SUNBURN
Ward off sunburn with these easy tips:
- Wear shades. Did you know you can get melanoma on your eye? Wrap-around sunglasses are your best bet to keep UV rays out of your retinas.
- Stay in the shade. Whether you’re enjoying a picnic or watching the kids play in the lake, choose a shady spot to lounge in.
- Drink lots. It can be easy to forget to drink when you’re playing in the sun, but dehydration is a major side-effect of sunburn. (See our post “Why Is Drinking Water Important? 6 Reasons to Stay Hydrated.”)
- Keep your clothes on. Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and a wide-brimmed hat when you’re outside.
- Wear sunblock. Choose a cream with an SPF of 15 or higher, bonus points if it contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Apply it 30 minutes before heading outside (even if it’s cloudy) to the entire body—ears, lips, back of neck, and top of feet, too. If you’re using a spray, rub it in with your hands to ensure full coverage and avoid spraying it near the face. Don’t forget to reapply, especially after swimming! Also, check your expiration date.
- Take a supplement. A 2017 study by German researchers found that taking lycopene or lutein (carotenoids found in veggies like tomatoes and carrots) could protect the skin against the negative effects caused by UV rays. More research is needed, but the results are promising. Until we know for sure, slather on the sunblock!
- Eat chocolate. Like we needed another reason to indulge. Research proves that eating dark chocolate can help protect your skin from the harmful effects of UV rays. This only works if the chocolate is high in flavanols, so choose one that doesn’t contain added ingredients. The darker the better.
This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.