How to Treat a Sunburn – You know the story – the pain, redness, and occasional blistering that you experience with a sunburn is no fun. It happens because you have exposed your skin to more sun than it should be able to handle. The burn tells you that you have damaged DNA as well as damaged skin cells, and there is no fix for those.
You can alleviate some of the symptoms of inflammation with the right care, but there’s nothing you can do to reverse the DNA and cell damage.
Table of contents
- 0.1 You can alleviate some of the symptoms of inflammation with the right care, but there’s nothing you can do to reverse the DNA and cell damage.
- 1 Dermatologist’s advice on sunburn and tanning
- 2 4 simple steps that can relieve the discomfort of sunburn (aka treating sunburn on face or elsewhere):
- 3 What long-term effects does a sunburn have?
- 4 Sunscreen facts from The Dermatologist:
- 4.1 The SPF usually tells you how well the product blocks UVB.
- 4.2 Your sunscreen needs to be really good at blocking UVA rays.
- 4.3 Apply your sunscreen properly.
- 4.4 Do not use old sunscreen!
- 4.5 Click here to see Zinc Oxide sunscreens featuring the latest in sunburn prevention technology.
- 4.6 Share this:
- 4.7 Related posts:
This means that the most important form of treatment for sunburn is prevention; Once UV rays start damaging your skin, a complex inflammatory process has already begun, resulting in redness and discomfort… and there’s no turning back.
Dermatologist’s advice on sunburn and tanning
This is part 3 of my sunburn series. Together they give a complete picture of what the sun is doing to your skin.
- The first post is titled: What is sunburn?
- The second post is What is A Tan?
- In this third and final post, I’ll try to give you some tips on how to take care of your skin if you’re unfortunate enough to get sunburned.
I also give you advice on how to prevent another sunburn in the future. The treatment I outline below is simply an attempt to reduce the inflammation and discomfort, it doesn’t repair the DNA and cellular damage – it’s an unfortunate keepsake of life.
4 simple steps that can relieve the discomfort of sunburn (aka treating sunburn on face or elsewhere):
- The best way to relieve the redness and discomfort is to start taking an aspirin or an indomethacin (a prescription drug that requires your doctor’s supervision). These help fight some forms of inflammation, but must be taken before or immediately after sun exposure before the redness gets really bad. (I will not provide dosage recommendations as this is a medical treatment and requires your doctor’s supervision, the information here is for instructional purposes only.)
- Topical prescription cortisone creams applied to reddened skin within 6 hours may also provide some relief. Again, this requires the supervision of your personal doctor and many cortisone creams are only intended for use on specific areas of the skin; This information is educational only!
Moisturizers should be applied within 3 minutes of toweling off from a cool water bath or shower to keep skin soothed and hydrated, but peeling will most likely still occur in a week or so. Use a moisturizer without fragrances or irritating ingredients like AHAs. Choose one with aloe vera to soothe inflamed skin like mine Natural face and body lotion. This is a good moisturizer for the whole family and a product I recommend if you expect sun exposure.
- Pure aloe vera gel can soothe inflamed skin. Never use one with a topical anesthetic like benzocaine or lidocaine, as these can cause an allergic rash.
What should you avoid if you get sunburned?
Sunburned skin is more prone to irritation than normal skin. Your barrier strength is damaged because it is swollen and the protective outer layer of dead skin cells is peeling off. Sunburned skin is more porous and sensitive and needs to be babysat. If you don’t take care of your sunburnt skin gently, you can cause even more injury; the redness and pain may last longer and you may be at greater risk of uneven skin tone when you eventually heal.
Dermatological tips on what to avoid with sunburned skin to help it heal.
- Sunburned skin should not be rubbed, exfoliated, or exposed to harsh products (like some acne medications, alpha hydroxy acid anti-aging products, retinol, or tretinoin).
- Sunburned skin should also not be exposed to the sun again until it has completely healed. This is because the outer protective layer of dead skin cells is damaged, allowing more harmful UV rays to penetrate.
How long should you keep sunburned skin out of the sun?
This question is driving me crazy and anyone who knows me can imagine that I need to be sedated to answer it. I never recommend sun exposure of skin, which can lead to sunburn. (I just read this to my husband, who gasped!) I also know not everyone will follow my advice to the letter, so I’ll give you a longer answer. – Dermatologist and skin wellness expert Dr. Cynthia Bailey
Skin durability after sunburn depends on the extent of the burn. Part of what protects skin from the sun is a healthy layer of dead skin cells (called the stratum corneum). This peels off after about a week and then the skin needs at least 2 weeks to build up again. Hence, Your skin could be back to normal after about 3 weeks at the earliest. If the sunburn was severe, it could take even longer.
Unfortunately, there is no good news or quick fix for sunburn. Prevention is really important.
What long-term effects does a sunburn have?
Sunburned skin often develops “sunburn freckles” as a permanent reminder of the damage done. The more often you get sunburned, the more freckles you get. Sometimes all it takes is a really bad burn to cause the freckles. When I see these “sunburned freckles” on a skin exam, I know I’m particularly concerned about finding skin cancer on that area of skin. Sunburn increases your risk of developing melanoma, the potentially deadly (also known as a capital “C”) type of skin cancer. Even a blistering sunburn before the age of 18 doubles your risk!
“Zinc oxide sunscreens are the best! Other people used SPF 50 and got burned. Since mine contained zinc, it worked and my skin didn’t burn like hers.” – Brenda W, Sevastopol, CA
How to protect your skin from sunburn, including protecting your sunburned skin from more sun exposure!
Apply a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Know the difference between SFP and UVA sunscreen when shopping for sunscreen and know how to apply sunscreen correctly to make it work. I’ll give you the sunscreen facts below.
Cover as much skin as possible with sunscreen clothing when out in the sun, don’t rely solely on sunscreen. Keep in mind that not all clothing is good at blocking the sun. You need to know what kind of fabric works and what doesn’t. Play it safe and either use official sun protection clothing or wash Sun Guard into the fabric of the clothing to protect it from the sun. How to make sun protection clothing with Sun Guard, I explain in my post: Are Your Sundresses Good Enough To Be Sun Protection Clothing?
- Wear a hat to create shadows across your face. It needs to have a full brim of at least 3 inches to really shade your face. (Not a baseball-style hat!) Remember, your hat must also cover your head, so forget about visors and mesh-topped hats. I talk more about what makes a good sun hat in my post, Great Sun Hats: What Works and What Doesn’t.
- You still need a good sunscreen on your face to protect you from reflected light.
- Also, wear UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. seek shade and avoid direct sun as much as possible.
Click here to view the patient-tested, dermatologist-approved zinc oxide sunscreens, sunscreen hats, and other tools I use to protect my patients’ skin from the dangers of sunburn.
Sunscreen facts from The Dermatologist:
The SPF usually tells you how well the product blocks UVB.
- UVB is the most important sunburn radiation.
- You want to use a sunscreen with an SPF of over 30. An SPF higher than 40 or 50 which doesn’t give you much more protection and is actually misleading.
- If you would like more information on UVB, read my post entitled What is the SPF of your sunscreen?
Your sunscreen needs to be really good at blocking UVA rays.
- A product can claim UVA protection but really can’t block all rays.
- SPF doesn’t tell you the whole story about UVA protection. You must be using a product specifically labeled as “broad spectrum” to know that there is protection from UVA. No sunscreen will block all UVA rays.
- I think mineral sunscreens are the best at blocking UVA, so I only recommend sunscreens that contain 5% or more Micro Zinc Oxide. Zinc oxide blocks almost all light waves in the UVA spectrum. You also need to know that the ingredients in sunscreen don’t last on your skin or even in the sunscreen bottle. The mineral sunscreens like zinc oxide last the longest and are the most reliable ingredient. For this reason, I find products with zinc oxide to be more trustworthy and I personally never rely on anything else. If a product contains other sunscreen ingredients, that’s fine, but look for at least 5% micro zinc oxide.
Apply your sunscreen properly.
How you apply sunscreen is hugely important to whether it works well or not! We know that people don’t apply enough, miss spots and don’t touch up often enough. Read my advice in this post, which talks about the key elements to include in your sunscreen – and how much to apply!
Do not use old sunscreen!
Sunscreen doesn’t last forever, so at least buy a new tube or bottle every year. Heat and age affect how long your sunscreen stays active, and since you probably can’t remember where last year’s bottle was, you start afresh each season.
Click here to see Zinc Oxide sunscreens featuring the latest in sunburn prevention technology.
Andrews’ Diseases of The Skin, 11th edition, William D. James, MD, Timothy Berger, MD and Dirk MD Elston, MD, Saunders 2011, pp. 24-25. Photos: thanks and gratitude to Allan Donque and Collin Grady