How to Treat a Sunburn

Millions of you failed me this weekend. You got too much sun and not enough sunscreen. The result: a sunburn. It’s OK. It happens to the best of us. Now what do you do? Here are 7 tips to treat a sunburn.

A sunburn is an actual radiation burn of your skin. The ultraviolet light from the sun damaged the DNA of your skin cells, triggering these cells to die (which is a good thing since you don’t want mutated cells hanging around, causing trouble). The dead cells trigger release of inflammatory signals called cytokines that lead to redness, swelling, and pain. The dead cells will slough off in a few days leading to peeling and often uncomfortable itching.

Here are 7 ways to treat a sunburn:

  • Take anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprophen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) or aspirin. These stop inflammation and reduce the amount of redness and pain. It is important to take them early as they can help block the release of interleukins, the skin’s main sunburn cytokine.
  • Apply cool compresses and cool moisturizers. Try Eucerin Calming Cream. Put it in the refrigerator for a few hours before applying to your burn.

  • Avoid hot showers. Instead, take a luke warm bath with Aveeno Collodial Oatmeal. The oatmeal is both a soothing anti-inflammatory and a moisturizer, which are the two things your skin needs most.
  • Avoid any additional sun exposure. The best way is to cover up with clothing; applying a sunscreen to a sunburn can worsen the inflammation and itching.
  • If you have blisters, resist the urge to pop them. They form a protectant seal on your skin; if they tear, the sensitive underlayers of skin will be exposed. You won’t like it. Don’t peel off the dead skin either; rather let it slough off on its own in the shower.
  • If you have extensive burns or blistering, see your physician. He or she can prescribe topical steroids to help minimize the inflammation.
  • Avoid numbing sprays such as benzocaine. Although they can feel great when applied, they are notorious for causing allergic contact dermatitis. If you think a sunburn is bad, try adding an incredibly itchy, allergic contact dermatitis on top of a sunburn. As one of my patients put it: “Its like being tied down on a hill of fire ants.”

Post written by Jeffrey Benabio, MD.

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Photo credit: Keith Lewis

51 thoughts on “How to Treat a Sunburn

  1. I’ve had great results from using Aloe Vera for sunburn. Seems to help the burn heal faster and the pain relief is almost immediate. Not sure what if any affect is has on the skin from a dermatology standpoint, but I’ve never had an adverse reaction to it.

    Best stuff I’ve found is the 99% pure gels you can get at health food stores.

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  3. Michelle-
    Thank you!

    Dean-
    Aloe Vera is anti-inflammatory. Many people use it for skin conditions just like this. Thanks for adding this.

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  7. I love aloe, too. Although we try hard NOT to get burned, sometimes we do. We keep aloe in the fridge, in a few different preparations (gel, spray, etc). The coldness of the getl helps with the burn pain, too.

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  9. My wife is obsessed with prevention and skin care. She makes constant visits to the dermatologist etc. etc. I like the site and will certainly pass it on to my wife and others.

  10. I’ve got the sunburn. . .I need to know now the best way to get my skin back to an even tone. I just got sunburn on my knees and shins and I look like a freak. I can’t wear shorts now. Any suggestions? Thank you.

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  14. I found this site really helpful. My boyfriend has really pale skin and gets sunburned every year without fail. I’m going to pass this information onto him. Thank you

  15. I used a product called 02rifik skin moisturizer.
    It worked in less than 10 minutes on my skin. It feels just like cool water and doesn’t sting but it takes away the pain fast and lets you get back to enjoying yourself. Good for shaving irritation too. Great product!

  16. Thanks for the tips.

    Just an FYI
    I rarely burn. I’m on heart meds and I spent 3 hours in the Florida sun. I cooked big time. Read the meds carefully. You may not have burned before but like me, you will burn now.

  17. Um. does anybody know of any good ways to get rid of peeling from sunburn on my face and ears? that would be much welcomed. thank you:)

  18. i have sun burn on my face as at 4 years ago and the afected area is gettig dark,pls what i can do to it.thank

  19. i have a outside education for 3 days at the beach, i have to go, so the 1st day i got burnt on my legs, my face and a slight burn on my arms, the problem is that i have 2 more days to continue, the 2nd day i put alot of sunscreen spf 30, tomorrow is the third day, what should i do?

  20. I know this sounds completely crazy but vapor rub is not just for colds anymore!! It is the greatest relief for sunburn I know of. I work with teenage girls, who are absolutely impossible when they get burned!! We use the vapor rub on their burnt skin and it takes out the itching, burning and stiffness.

    Try it…. what have you got to loose?

  21. As mentioned in the blog, oatmeal is very soothing for all kinds of itchy, painful skin. However, I hate paying the high price of Aveeno oatmeal powder! You can get excellent results with regular oatmeal. I cook a big pot, adding 4 times the usual amount of water. Then my husband holds the strainer while I pour it in the bath water. Alternatively, you can tie up oatmeal in cheesecloth, but you don’t dont the same concentration as the cooking method.

  22. I know this may sound strange, but adding apple cider vinegar to a luke warm bath (enough to make the water and your skin smell) actually takes a lot of the heat and hurt out of the sunburn. I have no idea how or why this works, but the practice is commonly used in Austria, where my parents and grandparents are from. I can tell you that as a fair-skinned, blonde child, I got plenty of sunburns and this worked like a charm. Just lay in the bath for about 1/2 hour and then wash off, gently, with a moisturizing body wash and your skin won’t smell at all. Treatment can be twice daily depending on the severity of the burn. Try it and let me know. Dr. Benabio, can you provide some insight??

  23. Oh, by the way, I also have no problem in using Solarcaine, but my 10 year-old son developed an instantaneous contact dermatitis after I sprayed it all over his back. He was in agony and I felt terrible. I had no idea this was a common reaction until I read about it on this website. Try doing a spot test before spraying a larger area.

  24. I am from Arizona and have had my fair share of sunburns.

    I have tried “Aloe” everything – the green gels, lotions, and even taking an aloe vera plant and rubbing its goo right on me. NOTHING works as well as the Made from Earth PURE ALOE FACE TREATMENT (from the Made from Earth skin care line).

    When I sunburn, I tend to blister and the Made from Earth Aloe Treatment makes it so I don’t even peel – it keeps my tan (which I wanted to get), but moisturizes so well that I don’t have to worry about all of the ugly peeling!!!

    My family went to the lake this week and because everyone loved this lotion so much, they used up my entire bottle – well, I guess that means its time to stock up!! :) Take my word for it, this is AMAZING!!!

  25. Oddly enough the vaper rub is awesome. Two of the active ingredients are menthol (2.6%), camphor (4.8%)which are commonly found in sunburn meds and itch cream stuff. So it does make sense.
    My 4 year old is very light skinned and looked like a lobster yesterday after 2 hours at the week. I put the Vicks on last night and this morning most of the redness is gone and so far nothing looks like it’s going to peel. =)

  26. Hi I have a 7 week old baby that got sun on her face. She was kept in the shade the whole time we were out side. She now has blisters on her face. What can I do? She doesn’t seem to be in pain and is drink fluids like normal. There is no swelling and some redness. Any advice?

  27. hi, we go to beach and i got sunburn on my face, some deadskin cause by sunburn wer removed but some are not that causes marks on my face (spots) it looks like skin desease (white and black spots)…
    please help me…
    thanks God bless

  28. I took the Made from Earth Pure Aloe Face Treatment on a recent vacation to Barbados. I usually burn on my face, shoulders and arms. My skin is quite painful and I peel for two weeks after I get home, which is never a pretty sight.

    This time, I applied the Pure Aloe Skin Treatment every evening after getting back to my hotel room. The first thing you notice is how immediately soothing it is. Also, my skin recovered more quickly the next day. I was done peeling within only a couple days after getting home, and had a great tan as well. I’m never going on vacation without this made from earth aloe again.

  29. thanks fro tips…in summers i get caught by this sunburn… i have tried many beauty products…and now i wanna some permanent results so i am here searching for that… i think these tips helps me…..

  30. Thank you so much. I have such bad sunburn on my legs I can’t walk. I stayed home from school on my birthday because of my sunburn.. I will try some of these things. -Ash

  31. This blog is great and the people who have commented on here have some really helpful tips especially “Nora Collins” about using vapour rub, as i have fair skin and being in the sun for only a few minutes i can feel the sun just burn, i resort to tanning products now.

  32. I sometimes sun bathe in the nude, since I am pretty fair skinned and sometimes inadequately apply sunblock to my more sensitive areas. This usually results in a sun burned penis which is quite painful. While I generally shy away from applying chemicals to my penis, in this case I always make an exception; applying an aloe vera lidocaine topical lotion to it. This is extremely soothing and the lidocaine really reduces the pain. This works in other areas as well.

    –Bill

  33. My skin sunburned very badly…I spayed a bunch of benzocaine all over it. Feels great, no signs of dermatitis. I wanna take an Oatmeal bath anyways.

  34. I got home at 7 (it’s 11 right now) and I have one of the worst sunburns that I have ever had since I was younger. I haven’t been in the sun much, and my stupid self didn’t use any sun screen… I’m really paying for it. Great tips. I’m going to use them. Thanks so much (:

  35. Good article, but guys remember, anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprophen or aspirin can’t be taken on empty stomach and it is advised not to give aspirin to child below 12 years of age.

  36. hey good blog but i was up at the beach and fell asleep in the sun i dont own a bath anymore what can i do…plz answer asap :) thanks

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  38. Ohmygawd! Vicks worked! I had that itchy pin prickly kind of burn on my chest and vicks was the only thing that I didnt have to hold against my skin to get relief! (Granted it stuck on its own) Anyways, thanks so much to those of you that suggested vapor rub!!

  39. Omg whoever decided to randomly try Vaporub…i <3 you.
    I put it on and BAM my burnt legs started feeling cool, so much relief right now

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