Medically Approved

9 ways to make your sunburn heal faster 

Mom putting sunscreen on son

We asked dermatologists how to soothe pain and speed healing. Some of their tips may surprise you. 

Emily Shiffer

By Emily Shiffer

Maybe you forgot to reapply your sunscreen — or you never put it on in the first place. Now you’ve been left with itchy, burning, peeling patches on your body.  

The discomfort you feel now is a sign of real damage. Sunburns can accelerate the appearance of aging and increase your odds of developing skin cancer. You should do everything you can to avoid them. That means wearing sunscreen and protective clothing and finding shade whenever you can. 

But once the damage is done — well, what next? There’s no sense in suffering longer than you have to. 

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But we want to keep you healthy in other ways, too. So we spoke to dermatologists who explained exactly how to ease sunburn pain and speed up the healing process. Here are their top tips. 

Tip #1: Pop an over-the-counter pain pill 

The itchiness and irritation you feel is the result of inflammation. To help tamp it down, take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) at the first sign of a sunburn. These include ibuprofen (such as Advil®) and naproxen (Aleve®)

“Make sure to do this on a full stomach so you don’t get stomach irritation,” says Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Even if you choose not to take an NSAID during the day, taking one before bed could help you sleep. 

Can’t take an NSAID? Here are some other ways to find relief.  

Tip #2: Drink more water than usual 

When your skin is damaged, it doesn’t hold moisture well. That means water evaporates through your skin faster than usual, says Rajani Katta, MD. She’s a board-certified dermatologist and member of the volunteer clinical faculty at Baylor College of Medicine and McGovern Medical School at UT Health. 

To compensate for the water loss, it’s extremely important to take in enough fluids. “You can easily become dehydrated, so it’s important to make sure to drink enough water to counteract what you’re losing through your skin,” Dr. Katta says. 

Tip #3: Cool your skin down 

Like any burn, a sunburn makes your skin feel uncomfortably hot. Turning the temperature down with a cool compress or cool shower can give you some quick relief.  

For a compress, use a washcloth that’s been soaked in cool tap water and wrung out, Dr. Katta says. And for your cool shower, just be sure to avoid harsh or abrasive soaps. They can dry out the skin and slow down the healing process, warns Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. 

Recommended reading: What’s the ideal amount of sunlight? 

Tip #4: Moisturize  

Once you’ve cooled your skin down, it’s important to apply lotion right away. That will help boost skin hydration and reduce damage. 

“Pat dry, leaving a little water on the skin,” says Dr. King. “Then apply a moisturizer to help trap water in.” Avoid petroleum or oil-based lotions, which can trap heat and make your sunburn worse. Pick a gentle, unscented moisturizer, as fragrances can irritate sensitive skin. Aveeno Baby Lotion is a good option. 

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Tip #5: Use aloe 

Even if you’re already using a good lotion, you can still find relief by applying aloe twice a day, Dr. Jaliman says. This plant contains anti-inflammatory compounds that reduce swelling in burned skin.  

You can use unscented aloe vera gel. “Or you can also take it out of the plant directly,” she says. 

Tip #6: Resist the urge to pop blisters 

If little bumps appear after a day in the sun, that means you have a second-degree sunburn. (Ouch.) As tempting as popping the blisters might seem, resist the urge and let them heal. 

Blisters form for a good reason. These fluid-filled bumps create a barrier over raw, burned skin and protect it from infection. Breaking that barrier can let in harmful germs. 

“It’s very important to not ‘unroof’ those blisters, or cut them off,” Dr. Katta says. “In a dermatologist’s office, we sometimes drain large blisters. But we always leave the roof intact because that helps your skin heal better.” 

Tip #7: Apply an anti-itch cream 

You might have used hydrocortisone cream on mosquito bites or poison ivy. It also reduces inflammation and itchiness from a sunburn. 

“Apply it to red itchy areas twice daily,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD. He’s an associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. 

Tip #8: Try white vinegar 

Putting acid on a burn sounds like a bad idea. But some people swear by this low-cost remedy. “It can help relieve the pain and inflammation of a burn,” Dr. Jaliman says. “It also acts as an antiseptic, so it can prevent the burn from getting infected.” 

You can apply diluted white vinegar directly to your skin or add a cup to a cool bath to soothe sunburn pain. 

Tip #9: Apply a milk compress to the skin 

It may seem like an old wives’ tale, but soaking your skin in milk really can soothe a sunburn. Just be sure to use whole milk. 

“The fat content of milk cleanses and moisturizes,” Dr. King says. “The milk enzymes provide gentle exfoliation, and the proteins, vitamins and minerals are anti-inflammatory.” Plain yogurt is also a good option, she adds. 

To soothe with milk, mix it in a bowl with ice. Then soak a washcloth in the mix and apply it to the burn for 15 minutes, says Dr. Zeichner. 

You can’t undo the damage of a sunburn, but you can limit the suffering. Just remember to put on sunscreen next time. And if you’re planning a trip to the pharmacy, grab your free prescription discount card. It could save you up to 80% off the price of your medication.  

 

Additional sources 
UV light and skin damage: Environmental Protection Agency 
Dangers of sunburn: Skin Cancer Foundation 
Aloe for sunburn relief: Penn Medicine 
Sunburn treatment: American Academy of Dermatology Association 

  

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