A sunburn treatment that actually works

You should learn how to treat a sunburn. And better yet: how to prevent one, too.
a person showing a sunburn on their shoulder and back, probably looking for a sunburn treatment.

Technically, you can't heal a UV-ray burn, but sunburn treatment is key to reduce pain and discomfort. marjana4782@gmail.com / Deposit Photos, for Popular Science

In the series I Made a Big Mistake, PopSci explores mishaps and misunderstandings, in all their shame and glory.

Sooner or later, everybody makes the painful mistake of getting a sunburn. Maybe you thought your dark skin wasn’t sensitive to UV rays, or you forgot to put on sunscreen altogether. It’s OK, these things happen.

Whatever the reason, you need to treat a sunburn quickly, especially if you’re outside—it can go from mildly annoying to painfully severe if you don’t pay attention.

How to treat a sunburn

A sunburn kills your skin cells, so there’s technically no way to heal the damage. All you can do is treat it by preventing further harm and managing symptoms while your skin is busy churning out new, healthy cells.

1. Get out of the sun

If you’re still exposed to the sun, you need to reduce further damage. This means seeking shade, covering your skin with tightly woven clothing, or better yet, going inside. 

2. Soothe the area with cool water and moisturizer

Just like a burn from a hot beverage or plate, one from the sun’s rays traps warmth in the skin. That means a key part of effective sunburn treatment is releasing that heat. Meghan Feely, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, recommends gently applying a cool compress for 15-minute intervals throughout the rest of that day or taking a cool shower or bath. What is cool to you will depend on the burn and how sensitive you are, so make sure to test the water by allowing some of the injured skin to briefly come into contact with it.

[Related: Your summer guide to sunscreen, from SPF to not-so-magic pills]

To make your bath more soothing, you can add some colloidal (or very finely ground) oatmeal. Anne Chapas, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City and director at UnionDerm, says oatmeal’s anti-inflammatory properties have been well-studied. If you don’t have any, cornstarch has similar benefits, and baking soda may help as well.

Although there are no controlled trials around using baking soda on sunburns, Jenni Holman, a board-certified dermatologist and member of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), says people (dermatologists included) commonly recommend the kitchen staple to soothe inflammation and decrease pain associated with sunburn. This may be because the powder has antimicrobial properties, and its anti-inflammatory benefits might stem from its ability to bring the pH of sunburned skin back closer to baseline, she explains. 

If you want to try, she suggests adding 2 ounces of baking soda to a cool bath.

After showering or bathing, it’s important not to pat your skin completely dry, says Feely. A sunburn can dehydrate your outer layer, and leaving some water in place allows your epidermis to reabsorb some of the H2O it lost as a result of that burning heat.

While your skin is still damp, apply a moisturizer to further trap that water so your cells can reabsorb it. There are countless products on the market, and some even claim to specifically care for burned skin. Feely says that any moisturizers that contain vitamins C and E will work best. These have antioxidants that help the skin heal, minimizing the amount of flaking that will ensue.

Moisturizers containing aloe vera—or even just a gel form of the plant’s juice—are often touted as the very best thing for a sunburn. Feely says aloe is commonly used to heal and hydrate skin and decrease inflammation, and it contains certain skin-healing proteins that can help prevent infection.

However, the superior sunburn-healing benefit of aloe vera versus other moisturizers isn’t clear. Some studies show that it does provide a statistically significant advantage. But other research doesn’t demonstrate this same boost. Ultimately, very few large-scale studies of sunburn treatments include a comparison between aloe vera and a placebo.

Some moisturizers contain occlusives like petroleum jelly (petrolatum) or ceramides, but their use is a heated subject among skin experts. Chapas recommends these ingredients, as their sole purpose is to trap moisture and keep it close to the skin. On the other hand, Feely says petroleum-based options will trap heat along with moisture, making it far more difficult to release. Holman, meanwhile, recommends these products only in the late stages of a sunburn, when the skin has already started to peel. 

Patch testing is probably the best way to know if you can benefit from a moisturizer with occlusives. Apply the product to a quarter-sized area of burned skin and wait for 10 to 20 minutes. If you get a heightened burning sensation on that spot, wash the product off carefully and use a moisturizer with a lighter gel or water-based formulation.

Finally, for extra soothing power, place your moisturizer in the fridge between uses—not the freezer. And stay away from ice packs, as the extreme change in temperature can result in even more pain. 

3. Fight the pain with over-the-counter medicine

A sunburn on a sensitive patch of skin or an area that’s constantly stretching, like the back of your knees, usually results in a lot of pain. Like, a lot. If the cool showers and moisturizer are not helping as much as you’d like, it’s time to get reinforcements. 

The AAD recommends starting with simple over-the-counter medications, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Take as instructed on the packaging to reduce swelling, redness, and inflammation. You can also try topical creams that contain hydrocortisone, but Feely recommends staying away from any products with benzocaine or active ingredients ending in -caine. These ingredients, which are commonly used to reduce pain and discomfort from bug bites, can be highly irritative.   

4. Drink lots of water

As a response to sunburn, your body will draw fluid to the surface of your skin and away from the rest of your organs, which the AAD says can eventually result in dehydration. Drinking water or replenishing fluids with sports drinks can help prevent that.

5. Leave your blisters alone

If you happen to have a second-degree sunburn, you’re going to get blisters, which you should treat in a similar way as the blisters you get when wearing the wrong shoes: leaving them alone.  

In short, blisters protect damaged skin from infection. When you pop them, you risk bacteria and other pathogens getting on or in the injury. All you can do is keep the blistered area clean with mild soap (fragrance-free and ideally with moisturizing properties) and water in case one of your blisters ruptures. If that happens, you can clean the area with soap and water, apply an antibiotic ointment, and cover the wound with a non-adhesive bandage

Even if you should leave your blisters alone in the great majority of cases, Chapas says you may carefully drain a particularly bothersome one:

  1. Thoroughly clean the area and wash your hands with soap and water. If you can don surgical gloves, do so. 
  2. Slowly puncture the blister cap with a sterilized needle (thoroughly clean it with an alcohol pad). Do this slowly—you want to go deep enough so the liquid can get out, but not so deep that you poke the delicate new tissue underneath. 
  3. Gently press the blister to drain the fluid. It is crucial to keep the cap in place, as it’ll protect the injured area from infection. 
  4. Apply antibiotic ointment twice a day.
  5. Cover the site with a bandage

Only drain blisters sparingly, as you don’t want to elevate your risk of infection. If your blisters are particularly big or are in sensitive areas, like on your face, go to a doctor. 

6. Let peeling happen naturally 

A week or so after your sunburn, your skin will start peeling. This means your body has created new tissue and is getting rid of dead cells. This process can be a bit gruesome to the eyes, and it can come with some itching and discomfort. 

And while (for some at least) nothing is more satisfying than gently lifting away a ginormous layer of skin without breaking it, that satisfaction doesn’t outweigh the detriment to the healing process. Do not pull on your peeling skin, as you may damage healthy tissue. 

You can fight discomfort by wearing loose-fitting clothing in the days following a sunburn. This will prevent the fabric from rubbing and irritating the already-sensitive area. Holman says that at this stage you can also make a paste using baking soda and water, which you can apply to the burn. This technique will help alleviate symptoms and act as a mild exfoliant, she explains. 

To reduce the itching, the Mayo Clinic recommends taking oral allergy medication, which you can get over the counter at your local pharmacy or grocery store. Just follow the instructions on the package to find some blissful relief. 

Protect yourself to prevent future sunburns  

Sun damage is cumulative, which means that every time you get a sunburn, you’re at a higher risk of developing skin cancers like melanoma. This is why it’s extremely important to shield your skin from UV radiation whenever you can. Preventing a sunburn is always better than nursing your skin back to health.

Practicing general sun safety in your day-to-day life can help enormously. Even if you stay indoors, wear sunscreen every day with at least 30 SPF protection on any exposed areas. Make sure to use the correct amount and reapply as instructed on the package. Reapplication is especially important if you’re going in the water, where your coverage can wash away.  

If you plan to stay out in the sun for an extended period of time, Feely recommends that you bolster your sunscreen with good clothing choices. For example, synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon provide far more UV protection than cotton. 

“Linen absorbs ultraviolet light, whereas synthetic fabrics such as rayon reflect it,” she says. 

Covering yourself up with UPF clothing, a hat, and sunglasses with a high UV rating will also help protect your body’s outermost layer. Don’t forget to check your skin for signs of sunburn once in a while, too.

What is a sunburn?

All this protection matters because sunburn happens when the sun’s ultraviolet radiation damages the DNA inside skin cells. As a result, those cells die in a process known as apoptosis. This excessive damage and death prompts the immune system to release a flood of inflammatory proteins and blood to the area. This flush causes the outer skin to become hot, irritated, and red.

In first-degree sunburns, the outermost layer of the skin, the epidermis, is damaged. These are your run-of-the-mill sunburns, where you’ll experience redness, inflammation, and pain. If you see blisters, you’re dealing with a second-degree sunburn. This is where UV radiation has penetrated the epidermis and killed cells all the way down to the dermis, the second layer of skin. Blisters form when these two layers of tissue separate, and inflammatory fluid rushes to the area to prevent further damage.

[Related: 5 skin cancer-care tools you should look out for]

The length of time it takes for your skin to rebound from a sunburn varies. “Depending on the severity, the redness can persist anywhere from a few days to weeks,” says Feely. 

Even after the sunburn goes away, you might see lasting effects on your skin, such as fine lines, wrinkles, or solar lentigines, colloquially known as sunspots. All these markings more commonly develop after repeated exposure to the sun. If you notice these changes, applying a topical retinoid (a class of chemical compounds derived from vitamin A) like Retin-A could help, Feely says. This type of ointment remodels the skin’s collagen and blocks the production of the skin pigment melanin, which helps make sunspots fade.

Now that you know what to do, you can more safely enjoy the fine weather outside. Before you leave, bookmark this guide so that if you miss a spot, you can quickly soothe your skin and get rid of that sunburn as soon as possible.