Spending time outside — even just a little — can lead to sunburn if your skin is unprotected. The resulting pain and discomfort may send you scrambling to find relief, rummaging around your house for anything that might work as a sunburn remedy.
Maybe you’ve heard claims that milk, essential oils, non-fat Greek yogurt, cucumber, honey or green tea can function as a sunburn treatment. But most home remedies aren’t well-studied for sunburn, and the moment you realize your skin is red and inflamed is hardly the time to experiment. Instead, stick to tried-and-true approaches that doctors recommend. And try to assess the damage you’ve suffered before applying anything to your skin.
Types of Sunburn
The most common types of sunburns are first- or second-degree burns, caused by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or an artificial source (such as a tanning bed).
A first-degree sunburn damages the top or superficial layer of skin (the epidermis). Symptoms include:
— Redness (depending on your skin tone).
— Skin that’s hot to the touch.
A second-degree sunburn damages the epidermis as well as part of the second, deeper layer of skin (the dermis). Symptoms are similar to those of a first-degree sunburn and can include a few others.
“Blistering is the key that indicates a second-degree burn. Or if you wipe your hand across the skin and the superficial layer comes off, that’s a second-degree burn,” says Dr. David Smith, director of the Burn Center at Tampa General Hospital and chair of the Plastic Surgery Department at the University of South Florida. “When you lose the top layer of skin, you lose your antimicrobial skin defense and become vulnerable to infection, so you need to be evaluated by a physician.”
Home Remedies for Sunburn
If your sunburn doesn’t include broken blisters or skin that sloughs off easily, it should be okay to try a home remedy for sunburn. The initial goal is to reduce pain and inflammation. Doctors recommend the following:
— Cool compresses. “A cool compress diffuses superficial heat that someone is experiencing. It also helps lessen the initial inflammatory response, but only in the first few hours after a burn. And colder isn’t better. If you put something cold on your skin, it could cause more damage,” says Dr. Jake Laun, a plastic surgeon at the Burn Center at Tampa General Hospital and an assistant professor of plastic surgery at the University of South Florida.
— Frequent cool baths or showers. A cool bath or shower has the same effect as a cool compress. When you get out of the tub or shower, gently pat your skin dry with a towel and then apply a thick moisturizer to help trap water in the skin. “Use ceramide-containing skin creams,” recommends Dr. Angela Casey, a dermatologist and Mohs micrographic skin cancer surgeon based in Westerville, OH. “They help restore fats that contribute to the skin barrier.”
— An oatmeal bath. Colloidal oatmeal is a type of ground, processed whole grain oats. It may have anti-inflammatory or anti-oxidant properties. Adding a packet of colloidal oatmeal to a cool bath may help soothe sunburned skin.
— Aloe vera gel. This gel comes from the leaves of the aloe vera plant and has natural healing, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. It’s often recommended to treat burns, wounds and skin irritation. You can use the gel that comes directly from an aloe plant or use aloe-based gel or lotion products.
What else will help? Drink plenty of water stay hydrated. When the skin is burned it loses water and hydration more rapidly and can lead to dehydration. And consider using certain medications, as long as your doctor says it’s okay.
“Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen will help with pain and inflammation. If oral NSAID therapy is not recommended due to any underlying medical condition, you can use topical NSAID therapy with diclofenac gel,” says Dr. Sabrina Barata, a primary care physician based in Lutherville, Maryland.
Topical steroids such as cortisone creams are commonly used as a sunburn remedy. But doctors disagree whether topical steroids are effective for sunburn.
Healing Sunburned Skin
“In most cases, your skin can heal itself from a sunburn over several days. However, the length of time a sunburn lasts depends on the severity,” Casey says.
What should you expect? “Blisters usually heal within seven to 10 days. If a blister ruptures, clean the site with soap and water and cover it with a dressing,” Barata says. “If it’s not severe, sunburn resolves on its own within a few days with appropriate treatment. Redness of the exposed area usually gets better within three to seven days.”
After that, your body may shed damaged skin cells. “When the redness and swelling start to subside, the skin that had been inflamed has to go somewhere and it will start to shed or peel,” says Dr. Erum Ilyas, a dermatologist based outside of Philadelphia.
During this time, it’s important to continue moisturizing your skin every day. And don’t give up the habit once the sunburn is gone. Moisturized skin will help you maintain your skin barrier throughout the year.
Finally, avoid sun exposure while your skin is healing from sunburn. Once it’s better, make sure you follow the rules to protect your skin:
— Avoid direct sun exposure, especially during peak hours.
— Stay in the shade when possible.
— Wear sunglasses that block UV rays.
— Wear sun-protective clothing and hats. “Much like sunglasses, clothing that is not labeled as sun-protective may be giving you a false sense of security,” Ilyas says. “I have a patient who saw me after returning from a vacation. He had applied sunblock all over except where his swim trunks were. This is awful, but the only place he burned was under his swim trunks.”
— Avoid tanning beds.
— Get your skin checked by a doctor regularly. “See your primary care physician or dermatologist for annual skin cancer screenings,” Barata says. “It’s important to remain vigilant with UV protection due to the increased risk of skin cancer, regardless of your age or skin type.”
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Update 11/23/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.