Why Do Sunburns Itch?

Have you ever had a sunburn? First it hurts. Then it itches. And itches. And itches.

Why is that?

Sunburn is caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation damage to your skin. Too much UV damages your skin cell’s DNA, and your immune system responds by killing off the bad cells. Because UV radiation doesn’t penetrate (unlike X-rays for example), it damages only the surface layer of your skin. This outermost layer happens to be loaded with special nerve fibers called C-fibers which are responsible for itch.

Itch is a mechanism to protect us against insects and other minor injuries that aren’t significant enough to register as pain. It’s our skin’s way of saying; “Hey, there’s a bug on us, get it off!” Because the damage from sunburns happens in this same surface layer, these C-fiber nerves fire furiously until the skin is healed.

Here’s how to soothe sunburn itch:

  • Try a soothing lotion such as Eucerin Calming Lotion. You can even keep it in the refrigerator for a few hours before applying it for cool, soothing relief.
  • Lukewarm baths with colloidal oatmeal can also sooth and heal sunburned skin.
  • Many people also like aloe for its anti-inflammatory and soothing properties.
  • Avoid topical numbing sprays with “cane” in them. Allergies to these topical anesthetics is common, and the last thing you need is to add a raging allergic dermatitis to an already itchy sunburn — it’s an itch of Biblical proportion.

Photo: Kelly Sue, Flickr

4 thoughts on “Why Do Sunburns Itch?

  1. Dear Dr. Benabio,
    It’s a great pleasure to read your blog. I find your post very informative. Thank you for sharing with us how to treat sunburn itch.
    As a reader, I consider your writing to be a great example of a quality and globally competitive output.
    As a moderator for Physician Nexus (a community for physicians) I would like to share your genuine ideas and knowledge. With this you can gain 1000 physician readers on Nexus.
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    On behalf of the Physician Nexus Team
    http://www.PhysicianNexus.com

  2. Pingback: How to Soothe Itchy Sunburn — Vida Bonica

  3. The girl in the photo has my exact skin. I haven’t really figured out how to soothe sunburn itch. None of your suggestions worked for me.

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