Maybe you skipped the sunscreen because you weren’t supposed to be out long, or you got so wrapped up in the beach day fun that you didn’t reapply as often as you should’ve. Perhaps you did slather on the SPF but accidentally missed a spot. Whatever the reason, unprotected sun exposure can result in a sunburn and all the discomfort that follows. Getting burnt is one of those summertime staples — one that’s way less fun than music festivals and backyard barbecues.
Of course, you want to try to avoid sunburn from happening by applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen every two hours when you’re outside during the day. Still, if your skin ends up sore and red, don’t feel bad; it happens to the best. To help ease any suffering, Bustle pinged a few dermatologists for their advice on what helps a sunburn feel less awful.
What Happens When You Get A Sunburn
Symptoms of a sunburn can start to appear within a few hours of exposure and peak around the 24-hour mark, explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jenny Liu, M.D. Sufferers may experience redness, pain, swelling, and, in more severe cases, blistering of the skin. Worse still, your sunburn may also be accompanied by a headache, high fever, or chills — which could be signs of a more serious problem, like heatstroke or a second-degree burn, Liu says. If that’s the case, you want to seek medical attention immediately. Less severe cases can often be treated at home.
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky, M.D. says, “A sunburn is an inflammatory skin reaction to ultraviolet light.” It’s what happens when the outermost layer of our skin — the epidermis — is damaged by UVB radiation caused by the sun’s rays. “Our body responds to this damage by increasing its immune response with dilation of blood vessels — which is why our skin turns red and becomes inflamed and warm,” Zubritsky explains. The peeling that happens when you get a sunburn is also a part of your body’s immune response; it’s sloughing away dead skin cells. Remember, it’s not just an uncomfortable process — long-term damage can lead to skin cancer and other conditions, Liu notes.
Sunburn Myths, Busted
A baseline tan will protect you from a sunburn. Both Zubritsky and Liu point to this as a common misconception. Yes, even if you got a tan yesterday, you can still get a sunburn today. “Having a tan only offers around a protection of around SPF 3 or 4, and you can definitely still get sunburned even with a tan,” Zubritsky tells Bustle. Liu says it’s also worth noting that a tan is a sign of a different form of sun damage. Your body is increasing its melanin production in response to excessive UV exposure, she says.
People with darker skin can’t get a sunburn. To piggyback off the point above, darker skin types can still suffer a sunburn. Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ryan Turner, M.D. says melanated skin can get sunburned and experience the negative effects associated with prolonged UVB exposure, like skin cancer. “While melanated skin offers some natural protection, sun protection is advised for skin of all colors,” Turner says.
You can’t burn on a cloudy day. Another widely held myth is that you only run the risk of a sunburn on bright, sunny days. Liu explains that even though there may be less of those harmful rays, they still come through. “People feel safer and are less likely to wear sunscreen, but, ironically, I’ve seen as many people burnt on cloudy days,” she says. She also notes that sunburns can occur in the wintertime, too, and so sunscreen is recommended year-round.
What Helps A Sunburn?
The first and best approach is to avoid getting a sunburn in the first place — that means applying broad-spectrum, water-resistant SPF 30 or above every two hours when you’re outdoors during the day, no matter the weather or season. If you do develop a sunburn, depending on the severity, it can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks to heal completely. To help ease your discomfort and hurry things along, the experts recommend these treatments.
Administer cold compresses. Turner says place cold compresses on the affected skin to help cool it down and ease the pain.
Take an NSAID. These are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen, and Zubritsky says they’ll help manage the pain and swelling.
Take a cool shower or bath. Similar to a cold compress, taking a cool shower or bath will help calm your skin. Liu says consider adding colloidal oatmeal — made by grinding oat grain into a fine powder — to your bath to soothe and reduce inflammation.
Apply a hydrocortisone cream. For added relief, each of the derms recommend using a topical hydrocortisone for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Cover blisters in petrolatum. Zubritsky and Turner say avoid picking at or attempting to pop blisters as this can lead to infection, more inflammation, or scarring. Liu adds, while blisters are healing, you can cover them in petrolatum (Vaseline) or other occlusive moisturizer for protection.
Keep the area moisturized. Zubritsky and Turner say to keep the sunburnt skin properly hydrated to protect it from further damage and to promote speedy healing.
Avoid sun exposure. This one may be obvious, but Turner says to avoid exposing the affected skin to direct sunlight while the burn is healing.
The Best Products To Help Treat A Sunburn
Zubritsky recommends this gel for its aloe lotion, which will soothe and relieve your sunburned or irritated skin. It also boasts antioxidants which neutralize free radicals to help protect and repair damaged skin cells.
Anyone who’s ever nursed a sunburn knows that a delicate touch is required. When bathing, Liu recommends gently cleansing with this body wash that’s specifically formulated for sensitive and eczema-prone skin. It contains ceramides and omega oils to hydrate, soothe, and protect the skin barrier.
Zubritsky is a fan of this super portable calming and hydrating spritz, which can be used on your face or all over. It’s just spring water and nitrogen — the latter of which acts as an antioxidant to help reduce inflammation and redness.
This daily moisturizing lotion is a must-have when treating a sunburn, Liu says, because of its sooting oatmeal, hydrating emollients, and dimethicone (a skin protectant).
To treat a bad sunburn, Liu points to this anti-inflammatory cream which contains hydrocortisone and soothing moisturizers. Bonus: It can be used on your face, too.
Dr. Jenny Liu, M.D., board-certified dermatologist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Dr. Ryan Turner, M.D., NYC-based board-certified dermatologist
Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky, M.D., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based board-certified dermatologist