How to help a sunburn heal faster
Sunburn happens when your skin gets too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation, causing symptoms like discoloration, pain, and swelling.
You can develop a sunburn regardless of your skin type.
Sunburn ranges in severity from mild discoloration (first-degree burn) to painful blisters (second-degree burn). Severe sunburn can even cause damage beneath your skin (third-degree burn).
Mild sunburns typically last up to a week, but symptoms of severe sunburn can linger for a month or longer. Remember, even mild sunburns can cause long-term damage.
Below, we cover tips for healing sunburn, what to avoid, how to prevent sunburn, sunburn risks, and medical treatment.
Tips to heal a sunburn
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends the following steps to help support your body’s healing process when managing sunburn:
- Cool down: Gentle cool showers, baths, and cold compresses can provide immediate relief. Avoid placing ice directly on your skin, as it can cause frostbite.
- Moisturize: Lotions, especially those with aloe vera, can soothe and hydrate. Avoid lotions containing alcohol, as they can further dry out the skin.
- Hydrate: Drink plenty of water to help your skin repair itself. Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, as they can dehydrate you more.
- Avoid sun exposure: Keep sunburned skin covered to avoid further damage. If the sunburn is severe, seek medical attention.
What to avoid
Some things can worsen the pain or delay healing when you have sunburn. It is important to avoid:
- Taking hot showers or baths: These can intensify the burn and strip the skin of its natural oils, leading to further dryness.
- Wearing inappropriate clothing: Avoid tight, synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, and rayon, which can irritate and trap heat. Choose loose, soft cotton and steer clear of rough textures that can be abrasive on sunburned skin.
- Popping blisters: Think of blisters like nature’s band-aid. Popping them can increase your risk of infection. If they break on their own, keep the area clean, and consider applying an antibiotic ointment.
- Exposing burned skin to more sun: Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when its rays are strongest.
- Using harsh skin care products: Products with harsh chemicals or fragrances can irritate sunburned skin. Stick to gentle, hydrating products instead.
How to prevent a sunburn
Consider following these tips to help protect your skin from harmful UV rays:
- Apply sunscreen: Use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen. Lighter-skinned people should choose products with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50 or higher, while darker skin tones can go with an SPF of 15 to 30. Regardless of skin type, it’s important to always use sunscreen and reapply according to the product’s instructions, especially after swimming or sweating. Tinted sunscreen may offer even more protection.
- Wear protective clothing: Choose long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and wide-brimmed hats. UV-protective clothing specifically designed to block UV rays offers added protection.
- Seek shade: Avoid direct sunlight, especially during peak sun hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Check the UV index: Plan outdoor activities when the UV index is low. The higher the UV index, the greater the risk of skin damage.
- Use sunscreen even when it’s not sunny: Cloudy days can be deceptive. UV rays can penetrate clouds, so don’t skip protection even if the sun isn’t out.
- Use solar radiation sensors: Some wearable devices can measure UV radiation exposure in real time. They alert you when UV exposure reaches harmful levels, helping you balance getting enough vitamin D while avoiding overexposure.
Risks associated with a sunburn
Sunburn poses serious health risks beyond immediate discomfort, including:
- Premature aging: Sunburn can lead to premature aging of the skin, causing wrinkles, leathery skin, and sunspots.
- Skin cancer: Repeated sunburns, especially in childhood, can increase your risk of skin cancer in adulthood.
- Eye damage: Excessive UV exposure can harm your eyes, leading to cataracts and macular degeneration. Wearing UV-protective sunglasses can help.
- Immune system suppression: Sunburn can weaken your immune system, making your body more prone to infections.
- Heat exhaustion and heat stroke: Prolonged exposure to the sun can lead to symptoms like dizziness, rapid pulse, nausea, and even unconsciousness.
- Pain and discomfort: Sunburn can cause significant pain that affects your daily activities and sleep.
Medical treatments for sunburn
Sunburns can sometimes require medical intervention, especially if they’re severe.
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Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments
- Pain and inflammation: Nonprescription pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) are first-line treatments for sunburn-related pain and inflammation.
- Moisturizers: Lotions containing aloe vera can soothe sunburned skin. Avoid products containing petroleum, which can trap heat.
- Skin inflammation and itchiness: Over-the-counter (OTC) creams like hydrocortisone (Cortizone-10, Cortef) can help reduce mild skin inflammation and itchiness due to sunburn.
- Severe sunburn: A doctor may prescribe corticosteroid creams like triamcinolone (Kenalog) or clobetasol (Temovate) for more severe sunburns when OTC treatments don’t help.
- Pain from severe sunburn: Stronger pain relievers like tramadol (Ultram) or hydrocodone acetaminophen (Vicodin, Norco) can help with extreme pain from severe sunburns or when other treatments are ineffective.
- Infections: If a sunburn leads to a bacterial skin infection, antibiotic treatments like mupirocin (Bactroban) or oral antibiotics like cephalexin (Keflex) can help treat the infection.
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Children’s skin is more sensitive than adult skin, making kids more likely to get sunburn.
Serious childhood sunburn significantly increases the risk of melanoma in later life.
If your child gets a severe sunburn, it’s important to keep them hydrated and their skin moisturized and contact a pediatrician.
Sunburn has a lasting effect on your skin and overall health. Using the right sun protection strategies is essential for both treating and preventing sunburns.
Remember that prevention is key to avoiding lasting skin damage. By staying informed and proactive about your skin health, you’ll be better prepared to enjoy the sun safely.
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- González Maglio DH, et al. (2016). Sunlight effects on immune system: Is there something else in addition to UV-induced immunosuppression? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5187459/
- How to treat sunburn. (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/injured-skin/burns/treat-sunburn
- Lin L, et al. (2021). Ionic hydrogels based wearable sensors to monitor the solar radiation dose for vitamin D production and sunburn prevention. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsami.1c13027
- Lyons AB, et al. (2021). Photoprotection beyond ultraviolet radiation: A review of tinted sunscreens. https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(20)30694-0/fulltext
- Protecting your eyes from the sun’s UV light. (2022). https://www.nei.nih.gov/about/news-and-events/news/protecting-your-eyes-suns-uv-light
- Rocholl M, et al. (2021). UV-Induced skin cancer knowledge, sun exposure, and tanning behavior among university students: Investigation of an opportunity sample of German university students. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jsc/2021/5558694/
- Skowrońska W, et al. (2023). The potential of medicinal plants and natural products in the treatment of burns and sunburn—A review. https://www.mdpi.com/1999-4923/15/2/633
- Wan S, et al. (2021). Anti-photoaging and anti-inflammatory effects of ginsenoside Rk3 during exposure to UV irradiation. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2021.716248