Even a short stay outdoors can lead to sunburn on unprotected skin. The resulting pain and discomfort can make you seek relief and look around your house for anything that might work as a sunburn remedy.
You may have heard claims that milk, essential oils, non-fat Greek yogurt, cucumber, honey, or green tea can work as sunburn treatments. But most home remedies for sunburn aren’t well studied, and the moment you realize your skin is red and inflamed, there’s hardly time to experiment. Instead, stick to proven approaches that doctors recommend. And try to assess the damage sustained before applying anything to your skin.
types of sunburn
The most common types of sunburn are first- or second-degree burns caused by excessive UV radiation from the sun or an artificial source (such as a tanning bed).
First degree sunburn damages the top or superficial layer of skin (epidermis). Symptoms include:
- Redness (depending on your skin tone).
- skin that feels hot.
Second degree sunburn damages the epidermis as well as part of the second layer of skin (dermis). The symptoms are similar to those of a first degree sunburn and may include some others.
“Blistering is the key that indicates a second-degree burn. Or if you run your hand over your skin and the superficial layer comes off, that’s a second-degree burn,” says Dr. David Smith, director of the Burn Center at Tampa General Hospital and chair of the Department of Plastic Surgery at the University of South Florida. “If you lose the top layer of skin, you lose your skin’s antimicrobial defenses and become vulnerable to infection, so you need to be checked out by a doctor.”
Home remedies for sunburn
If your sunburn doesn’t have any broken blisters or skin that peels off easily, it should be fine to try a home sunburn remedy. The initial goal is to reduce pain and inflammation. Doctors recommend the following:
- Cool compresses. “A cool compress disperses the superficial heat one experiences. It also helps reduce the initial inflammatory response, but only for the first few hours after a burn. And colder is not better. Putting something cold on your skin could do more damage,” says Dr. Jake Laun, a plastic surgeon at Tampa General Hospital’s Burn Center and an assistant professor of plastic surgery at the University of South Florida.
- Frequent cool baths or showers. A cool bath or shower has the same effect as a cool compress. When you get out of the bath or shower, gently pat your skin dry with a towel and then apply a heavy-duty moisturizer to lock in water. “Use skin creams containing ceramide,” recommends Dr. Angela Casey, a dermatologist and Mohs micrographic skin cancer surgeon based in Westerville, OH. “They help restore fats that contribute to the skin barrier.”
- An oatmeal bath. Colloidal oatmeal is a type of ground, processed whole grain oat. It can have anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties. Adding a packet of colloidal oatmeal to a cool bath can help soothe sunburned skin.
- Aloe vera gel. Derived from the leaves of the aloe vera plant, this gel has natural healing, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial properties. It is often recommended to treat burns, wounds and skin irritations. You can use the gel that comes directly from an aloe plant, or you can use aloe-based gel or lotion products.
“Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen help with pain and inflammation. If oral NSAID therapy isn’t recommended because of an underlying medical condition, you can use topical NSAID therapy with diclofenac gel,” says Dr. Sabrina Barata, primary care physician in Lutherville, Maryland.
Topical steroids such as cortisone creams are commonly used as a sunburn remedy. However, doctors disagree on whether topical steroids are effective for sunburn.
Healing sunburned skin
“In most cases, your skin can take a few days to recover from a sunburn. However, how long a sunburn lasts depends on its severity,” says Casey.
What to expect “Bulbs usually heal within seven to 10 days. If a blister bursts, clean the area with soap and water and cover it with a bandage,” says Barata. “Unless it’s severe, sunburn will go away on its own within a few days with appropriate treatment. The redness of the exposed area usually improves within three to seven days.”
After that, your body can shed damaged skin cells. “Once the redness and swelling goes down, the inflamed skin has to go somewhere and it starts to loosen or peel,” says Dr. Erum Ilyas, a dermatologist based outside of Philadelphia.
During this time, it’s important to continue to moisturize your skin every day. And don’t give up the habit once the sunburn is gone. Moisturized skin helps you maintain your skin barrier all year round.
Finally, avoid sun exposure while your skin is healing from sunburn. Once better, follow the rules to protect your skin:
- Avoid direct sunlight, especially during peak hours.
- Stay in the shade if possible.
- Wear sunscreen. “Use a broad-spectrum UVA and UVB sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher,” says Casey. “Apply sunscreen every two hours when outdoors.”
- Wear sunglasses that block UV rays.
- Wear sun protection clothing and hats. “Similar to sunglasses, clothing that isn’t labeled as sunscreen can give a false sense of security,” says Ilyas. “I have a patient who saw me after returning from vacation. He had sunscreen on everywhere except where his swimming trunks were. It’s awful, but the only place he burned was under his swimming trunks.”
- Avoid sunbeds.
- Have your skin checked regularly by a doctor. “See your family doctor or dermatologist for yearly skin cancer screenings,” says Barata. “Because of the increased risk of skin cancer, it’s important to remain vigilant about UV protection, regardless of age or skin type.”