Several dermatologists weigh in on the best ways to get rid of a sunburn.
So you spent the day in the sun and, oops, your skin isn’t happy about it. Seeking sunburn relief is critical whether your burn is mild, burning, or blistering. Not only will it make the healing experience a whole lot smoother and less painful, but it can also help prevent side effects like discoloration or scarring. A sunburn means sun damage, which increases the risk of skin cancer and premature aging. Just like other types of burns, sunburn is classified in severity as first, second, or third degree—and knowing which type you have will guide your next steps when it comes to care. “A first-degree sunburn is damage to the outermost layer of skin, referred to as the epidermis, and this usually presents as the classic red, sensitive, painful skin,” says Fatima Fahs, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. “A second-degree burn involves the deeper layer of skin called the dermis. Second-degree burns commonly result in blistering and even more pain.” A third-degree burn is the worst and most severe type; if you suspect you have this level of burn, it’s best to skip home sunburn remedies and see a doctor immediately. “If at any point you experience fever, chills, extreme dehydration, signs of infection, or blisters covering more than 20% of your skin, it is very important to seek urgent medical attention,” says Dr. Fahs. Unfortunately, by the time you have a sunburn, the damage to your skin has been done—which is why prevention is key. What helps sunburn the most is not getting it in the first place. However, how you care for your skin can go a long way toward healthy healing. There are even a lot of home remedies for sunburn relief that you can do with products you already own. To better know how to get rid of sunburn fast, we spoke to several dermatologists about their easy sunburn treatment suggestions. Follow their advice, below.
Cool down your skin.The first thing you should do—even if you’re still at the beach—is get out of the sun to avoid making the burn worse. Find shade, cover up your skin, and do whatever you can to protect yourself from harmful UV exposure. Sunburned skin is sensitive and at risk for further damage. Then, start cooling the skin. “For immediate relief from a sunburn, when the skin is still red and burning, it is most important to cool the skin,” says Purvisha Patel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon. “This is where ice and aloe vera gel come in.” Not only does a cool soak feel good after a day in the sun, but taking a cold shower as soon as possible can help ease redness and inflammation.
And keep it hydrated.After cooling the skin, apply moisturizer liberally. “Moisturizers with aloe, soy, or oatmeal are particularly soothing,” says Sumayah Jamal, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the director of the Skin of Color Specialty Clinic at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. Don’t forget your sunburned lips or scalp, either. “The lips can be treated the same way as the skin,” says Dr. Patel, who suggests moisturizer like Vaseline or Aquaphor to seal in moisture and repair the skin barrier. Dr. Jamal’s favorite product for sunburn relief is Biafine emulsion, which is prescription-only in the U.S. (If you’re in France, you can pick it up in stores.) “To get more relief, consider putting these products in the fridge prior to application for a cooling effect,” says Dr. Fahs.
Drink lots of water.Drinking water and staying hydrated is just as important as applying moisturizer, and this is especially true if sunburn blisters have developed. This is because, according to Dr. Patel, large blisters pull water from the skin. So drinking lots of water and covering those fluid-filled blisters is necessary to prevent dehydration.
Take medication.Sunburns come with a lot of redness and pain; anti-inflammatories like Advil can help take it down a notch. All the dermatologists we spoke with suggested pain medication for sunburn relief, as long as it’s safe for you to take. If you’re not sure, speak with your doctor first.
Apply cortisone cream.Cortisone cream can calm inflammation and keep skin from feeling itchy, but Dr. Jamal says it’s an especially important step for those with skin of color. Says Jamal, “For skin of color, sunburns may resolve with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, so I would advise using a cortisone cream or lotion, preferably prescription strength, twice daily until symptoms resolve to reduce the chance of skin discoloration.”
Keep your skin protected.Doctors say keeping a sunburn covered and protecting it from the air—especially if it has blistered—will speed up healing, but it’s important to protect it from the sun as well. “To further avoid discoloration, it’s very important to keep fresh skin beneath a sunburn completely sun-protected,” says Dr. Fahs.
Treat blisters right.“Second-degree burns result in blisters, which are fluid-filled pockets under the skin,” explains Dr. Patel. “When the skin has formed a blister, it’s okay to let it pop and the fluid to come out. The skin under the blister is very tender and raw, as the nerves are exposed to the air.” Covering the area can help with both healing and pain; however, “it is best to not pull the whole roof off, as this can affect normal skin as well.” Using a thick moisturizer over the area can help skin repair faster, Dr. Patel says. If you have large blisters and are prone to scarring or hyperpigmentation, a dermatologist can help guide your treatment. Again, this is especially a concern for skin of color.
No picking!When sunburned skin starts to heal, it typically begins to peel as dead skin sloughs off. Resist the urge to peel it. “Peeling the skin before it’s ready can increase the chances of discoloration and scarring,” says Dr. Fahs. Instead, Dr. Patel has some advice: “It is best to gently exfoliate with a washcloth and repair the barrier with a thick moisturizer on damp skin.”
Apply sunscreen liberallyWhile skin is healing it can be extra sensitive to the sun, so be mindful of your UV exposure and apply sunscreen frequently. This is a must even after your skin has healed: Every burn increases your chance for skin cancer and premature aging, so start applying sunscreen ASAP and start taking other steps to protect skin from the sun.
Dr. Patel recommends pairing sunscreen application with protective clothing like hats and sleeves. Also, make sure you’re applying enough sunscreen for it to work in the first place: “One shot glass per extremity, applied to the skin like you are icing a cake (not sprayed) and reapplied every two hours.”