Before the age of sunscreen, sunburn cures were diverse, strange and often frankly a bit ineffective. Would you want to try the medieval recipe that advises boiling an apple in frankincense, wine, and wax and then spreading it over your sunburn? I personally wouldn't. But there have been areas where natural folk remedies for sunburn, handed down over generations, have been proven to be pretty effective by modern science — though nothing is powerful enough to magic away the damage you've done to your skin. While many folk cures, like the ground-up honeysuckle flowers favored by 18th century Scots, will do your sunburn no good at all, a select few might actually prove a little helpful.
Sunburn science is also proving to be odder than anything our ancestors might have envisioned. A 2017 study on mice found that animals who ate late at night before bed were more prone to sunburn the next day, for instance, while another bit of research in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology discovered that when you've been burned, you should get yourself vitamin D supplements immediately; a high dose just after being sunburnt meant that people had less skin inflammation, lower skin redness and more skin repair cells after 48 hours. So we're constantly learning more about what it means to heal sunburned skin — but for right now, you'll be pleased to know that your grandma was likely right, and oatmeal baths are a good idea.
1White Or Apple Cider Vinegar
Vinegar of various kinds, but particularly the apple cider and plain white varieties, have been part of folk medicine for sunburn for hundreds of years, according to records. But while traditional remedies usually involved splashing it on the sunburn itself, modern dermatologists advise a gentler approach. Carl Korn, a doctor writing for Prevention, suggests that people with sunburn should endure the extremely weird smell of apple cider vinegar, or white vinegar, mixed with cool bath water. Be mindful to avoid spending too long in this bath, though, as exposure to apple cider vinegar can disrupt vaginal bacteria. Korn suggested a maximum of 20 minutes. Otherwise, it's a good idea to apply it using a washcloth or gentle spray bottle.
Witch hazel is known for its soothing properties on skin, though it's in no way a replacement for actual sun protection. Its uses for sunburn have been tracked in folk medicine for some time; a collection of 19th century Appalachian treatments suggests witch hazel. And it's now thought to be a decent way to "cool" the pain of sunburn temporarily; a study in 2011 found that it possesses anti-inflammatory properties, which is likely why it feels so helpful on sunburned skin.
3Milk Or Yogurt
Cooling a sunburn with cold materials seems like a good idea, but icing it directly without a cloth actually seems to do more harm than good, according to dermatologists. A better idea? Cool milk, cream, buttermilk or yogurt. According to dermatologist Dr. Debra Jaliman, writing for As/Is, a compress soaked in a solution of half-ice cold water and half-milk is a soothing treatment for sunburn and may help the skin, because of milk's anti-inflammatory proteins.
This slightly smelly option won't come as a surprise to people who know Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient Indian practice that's existed for thousands of years, where milk dipped in cloth has always been a suggested treatment for sunburn. However, milk may also prove to be an irritant because of lactic acids, so if it's not proving soothing, wash it off immediately.
Cornstarch, otherwise known as cornflour, has been around for quite a long time, as has its reputation as a soothing ointment when combined with water. A poultice made of cornstarch and liquid was used in folk medicine in Britain for centuries to relieve the pain of inflamed breasts in breastfeeding women. These days, though, dermatologists advise mixing it with water and applying it to the sunburned area to cool it down. It'll form a solid paste that will need to be washed off, so make sure you do that gently with cool water.
Using breakfast food to try and solve sunburn is a very old practice. Cool bread dough was a common folk remedy for attempting to cure sunburn in British rural medicine — but these days the advice is a bit more specific. If you add a cup of oats to a cool bath, you may reap some soothing benefits for your sunburned self, according to Dr. Nisith Sheth, who told the BBC, "Oats — and oatmeal — have been well known to reduce inflammation, and they're in some commercial brands to treat things like eczema, because of its anti-inflammatory effects."
However, none of these remedies will likely be as effective as an anti-inflammatory drug, a cortisone cream from the pharmacist, lots of cooling on the skin and plenty of water to rehydrate. And the best possible thing to do? Don't get burned in the first place.