You’ve been advised countless times on the importance of daily sunscreen use and how staying out of the sun during peak hours is vital, but be honest: Sunburns happen.
Typically, sunburn occurs by accident — usually the result of forgetting to reapply sunscreen or thinking you’re in a spot where you can’t get burned (ahem, shade). Regardless of its origin, one thing stays constant: the stinging, itching, burning pain.
It goes without saying that measures should always be taken to avoid getting burned in the first place. But if you find yourself with skin that’s been overexposed to the sun (by accident, of course), there are plenty of store-bought and DIY sunburn remedies that will have you feeling better in no time.
How Does a Sunburn Happen?
Sunburns can be spotted — and felt — from a mile away. Skin takes on a pinkish hue and is often itchy and hot to the touch, occasionally with pus-filled blisters appearing. After a sunburn, the top layer of damaged skin sometimes begins to flake and peel off — typically referred to as “peeling.” In severe cases, fever, nausea and chills may accompany a sunburn.
Burns happen from too much exposure to the sun, and while it may feel like your body, with its soreness, swelling and discomfort, has completely turned against you, the opposite is actually true. “A sunburn or sun tan is the body’s defense mechanism as a result from harmful ultraviolet (UV) sun rays,” notes Debra Jaliman, M.D., a dermatologist in New York. “The body makes even more melanin in an attempt to protect your skin from further damage. Melanin is produced by cells in our skin called melanocytes.”
It’s important to note that while you may think you’re protecting yourself from sunburn by wearing long sleeves and pants, that’s not necessarily the case. Some articles of clothing have a loose weave that allows UV light to penetrate the skin. And on the same token, that shady patch you found under a tree or umbrella may not be offering much protection either.
“You can absolutely get sunburned in the shade,” says Stephen Prescott, M.D., president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. “The shade does protect you a lot, but you have to be aware of reflected light, like off of sand at the beach or off of snow. This reflected light can still burn you.”
How Can Sunburn Be Prevented?
The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so avoiding exposure during those hours is important. If you’re unable to stay indoors during that time, make sure to use a water-resistant sunscreen everywhere (including your earlobes!) and reapply every 40 to 80 minutes. In order to protect yourself from sunburn, your best bet is to apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. Be sure to check the expiration dates and directions on any sunscreens you’ve had for a while. A good rule of thumb? Toss any sunscreens that are close to three years old. (The Food and Drug Administration requires all sunscreens to maintain their initial strength until at least the three-year mark.)
Other precautions to consider are wearing a wide-brimmed hat, staying in shaded areas (remember, though, it is not a danger-free zone) and wearing dark-colored clothes with a tight weave. Although heat is more attracted to dark hues, rays have a more difficult time penetrating the fabric — resulting in more protection.
If the idea of wearing black pants and a shirt during the dead of summer doesn’t sit well with you, you can also invest in clothing specifically designed for preventing sunburn. Check labels for their ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), which signifies how much the fabric protects against sunlight. (The higher the number, the more protection.)
Finally, avoid tanning beds. Not only are tanning beds incredibly harmful, but using one in order to get a “base tan” won’t decrease your chances of sunburn.
What Happens After a Sunburn Occurs?
It doesn’t take long to figure out you have a sunburn, but sometimes the extent of the damage can take a few hours to appear. “Because of the cellular response that happens once someone gets sunburned it normally takes a couple hours before the sunburn is seen,” Dr. Jaliman says. “Anywhere from two to six hours, typically, but you may see the skin start to turn red after 30 minutes.”
For people who have dark skin, it can be a little trickier to determine if sunburn has happened. “Visually, dark-skinned people can’t see the burn, or ‘red,’ in their skin color,” Dr. Jaliman notes. “But they may experience tightness, discomfort, pain and skin that is hot to the touch. Peeling may also occur afterward, and this is a clear indicator of sunburn.”
Usually, a sunburn will heal in three to five days, with skin becoming less tender, red and uncomfortable during that time. However, in more severe cases in which blisters have occurred, healing time may take over a week.
What’s the Proper Way to Care for a Sunburn?
Unfortunately, once you have a sunburn, there aren’t any sunburn remedies that will undo the damage that’s already been done to your skin. That said, there are a few measures that can be taken to alleviate the inevitable pain that accompanies sunburn.
If the discomfort is really intense, Dr. Prescott advises patients to take over-the-counter medication to ease the soreness. “You might consider using anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin to help with inflammation and discomfort,” he notes.
Additionally, both Dr. Prescott and Dr. Jaliman recommend applying aloe vera to the skin after it’s been overexposed to the sun. However, it’s important to keep in mind that if you do use aloe to treat your sunburn, it’s best to use one without fragrance, which can irritate skin further.
Other sunburn remedies Dr. Jaliman recommends are hydrocortisone cream and witch hazel. “Hydrocortisone cream can be used for itching, inflammation and the occasional swelling that’s associated with a sunburn,” she says. “And witch hazel is a natural astringent that can help reduce inflammation as well as decrease oil and redness.”
Something you shouldn’t do after getting a bad sunburn is use any products ending in “-caine,” such as benzocaine, which can irritate skin or cause further damage. Also avoid exposing yourself to more sun, and resist the urge to pick at blisters that may have formed. “It’s important to avoid scratching or popping blisters, as that can increase the likelihood of infection,” Dr. Prescott says.
What Home Remedies Can Treat Sunburn?
Fortunately, when you’re trying to figure out how to heal sunburn fast, there are plenty of DIY options — most of which are probably at the ready in your home. Here are a few sunburn remedies Dr. Jaliman urges patients to try:
-Oatmeal. Adding about a cup of whole oats to a cool bath or applying it directly to skin as an oatmeal paste will help reduce inflammation.
-Cold showers. A shower taken with cold water will help cool a sunburn and offer temporary relief.
-Cucumber slices. Cool cucumber slices placed directly on the skin can be soothing for a sunburn.
-Milk. The lactic acid in milk will help cool and relieve inflamed, sunburnt skin. “You can make a cold milk compress or take a milk bath and soak in it for a while,” Dr. Jaliman notes. “This helps pull heat away from the body.”
-Cold towels. Using a cold compress or towel should offer burned skin some relief. You should keep replacing the towel or compress with a colder one when it starts to get warm.
-Water. Perhaps most importantly, drink plenty of water to avoid the dehydration that sunburn can cause.
Should You See a Doctor?
Typically, having a sunburn doesn’t warrant a trip to the doctor, but in some cases, medical attention is in order. “You should see a physician if you have a fever, chills, blisters that cover a large surface area, or extreme pain,” Dr. Jaliman advises. “If you have blisters as a result of sunburn, medical care can help ensure those areas don’t become infected,” Dr. Prescott adds. Additionally, if your skin isn’t responding to the sunburn remedies you’ve tried, you may want to see your practitioner.
More likely than not, your skin will begin to heal in a few days, but your best bet is to take precautions to avoid getting a sunburn altogether. “Remember,” Dr. Prescott says. “The most important cream or ointment you can use for a sunburn is a high-SPF sunscreen to protect you from getting burned in the first place.”