For many people, sunburns are a common experience, especially during the summer months. According to a 2022 survey conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology, 33% of Americans said they got a sunburn, up from 25% in their 2020 survey. The survey also found that 65% forget to reapply sunscreen.
The report recommends everyone seek shade, especially between 10am and 2pm when the sun is at its strongest, wear protective clothing like wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, pants, and long-sleeved shirts (when possible), and to apply broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
Though they might be common, sunburns are still a cause for concern. Not only are sunburns painful and uncomfortable, they can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening health problems, including skin cancer. For this reason, you should always try to avoid getting a sunburn altogether.
However, prevention isn’t always possible. If you do get a sunburn, you need to know how to treat it correctly. There are so many remedies, ranging from anti-aging skincare products to common items in your pantry, that can help relieve pain and expedite the healing process.
What causes sunburns?
Before treating a sunburn, you need to know what actually caused it. Sunburns are caused from overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. There are two main types of UV rays associated with skin damage: UVA rays, which cause the skin to age, and UVB rays, which cause sunburn.
When you’re exposed to UV light, your body increases production of a pigment called melanin — which gives your skin, hair, and eyes their natural color — in order to protect your skin. This creates a “suntan,” and the extra melanin works as a barrier against UV rays. Everyone produces different amounts of melanin, but it isn’t always enough to protect fully against damaging UV light.
Bright, sunny days are not the only way you can get a sunburn. Artificial sources, such as sunlamps and tanning beds, also give off damaging UV rays. You can still get a sunburn when it’s overcast, foggy, misty, or hazy. Sunlight can be reflected off of water, sand, and even snow. Other environmental factors, such as latitude, altitude, and the time of day, can also increase your chance of getting a sunburn.
How long does a sunburn last?
Generally speaking, sunburns last from only a few days to about a week. The duration of a sunburn depends greatly on its severity, though, and if your sunburn is especially bad, it could take longer to heal.
There are three main degrees of sunburn, each with a different healing time, symptoms, and prognosis:
Mild sunburns: Also called “first-degree sunburns,” this type is the most common and least severe. These sunburns are red in color, uncomfortable, and feel warm to the touch. It typically doesn’t cause blisters or scarring, but your skin may peel as it begins to heal. Mild sunburns usually last from three to five days and can be easily treated with home remedies.
Moderate sunburns: Also known as “second-degree sunburns,” these burns are significantly more painful than mild ones, as they damage lower levels of skin. They are red in color, swollen, and may appear or feel moist to the touch. These sunburns often peel during the healing process and can leave scars after. Moderate sunburns can take up to a week to heal, and depending on the severity, you can either treat it at home or consult a physician.
Severe sunburns: Also referred to as “third-degree sunburns,” this type is the most painful and serious. You’ll likely have many of the same symptoms as moderate sunburns — including red skin, swelling, and blistering — but even more severe. You may also experience fever, chills, nausea, headaches, or dehydration. Third-degree sunburns typically cannot be treated with home remedies and often require a visit to the doctor.
Though severe burns are more serious than mild or moderate ones, all degrees of sunburn can be dangerous and increase your cumulative risk of developing skin cancer.
Sunburns cannot be “cured,” because they aren’t a disease, and the damage (so to speak) has already been done. Once you have a sunburn, the only way to get rid of it is to wait until your skin heals completely. You can treat your symptoms and try to quickly relieve any discomfort or pain before your burn begins to peel.
For more mild sunburns, there are dozens of different home remedies you can try, as long as your burn isn’t too severe. Consider one of the following treatments.
Note: for second- and third-degree sunburns, blisters and itching of damaged skin can put you at risk of infection. In this case, it may be best to seek help from a medical professional.
A simple moisturizer can do wonders for your skin, especially for a sunburn. Moisturizers can help prevent peeling, reduce itchiness, and provide general relief. They cannot undo your sunburn and the damage it did to your skin, but moisturizers and other effective skincare products can help reduce the visibility of aging caused by the sun.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are another simple way you can treat a sunburn. Acetylsalicylic acid or ASA (like Aspirin) and ibuprofen (like Advil or Motrin) are common NSAIDs you can find at virtually any grocery or drug store. NSAIDs can reduce redness and inflammation, and, as they are known pain-relievers, they may also decrease any discomfort you feel.
Topical anesthetics in the form of a cream or spray can also be an effective way to Topical anesthetics (analgesics) in the form of a cream or spray can also be an effective way to relieve pain and itchiness from a sunburn. They can easily be purchased over-the-counter at a pharmacy or drugstore. Be sure to try it out on a small, unafflicted portion of your skin before slathering it on top of your sunburn, in case of any irritations or unexpected reactions.
Sunburn relief and soothing remedies
There are also a variety of different remedies you can use to soothe a sunburn, many of which you may already have in your kitchen. Keep in mind they aren’t designed to repair damage, speed up the healing process, or “cure” your sunburn. They might, however, provide relief and alleviate some of your symptoms.
Aloe vera gel
Aloe vera has long been touted as a highly effective way to treat sunburns. You can purchase aloe vera from a drug store, grocery store, or pharmacy, or make your own gel from the leaf of an aloe vera plant. Simply break off a leaf and apply the gel that comes out of it directly to your sunburn. If you choose to purchase a gel or lotion, you can also apply it directly to your burn. You can do this multiple times per day, as needed, to soothe your burn.
Among its many other health benefits, black tea is reported to be a simple and inexpensive sunburn treatment. Steep several tea bags in warm water, then wait for them to cool. Then, take a rag or washcloth and soak it in the tea. Apply the rag to your burn, and continue soaking and re-applying to the entire area until the burn is thoroughly covered in tea. For smaller burns, you can try placing the steeped, cool tea bags directly on your skin to further reduce inflammation.
Certain essential oils can also be used to help heal and ease the pain of a sunburn. More research is needed to evaluate this use of essential oils, but early, small-scale studies indicate that they have potential to be effective as a burn treatment. Some essential oils that can be helpful for sunburn include:
- Tea Tree
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
To use any essential oils for sunburn treatment, you have to mix them with a carrier oil, such as coconut or sweet almond oil. Essential oils need to be diluted before use, and you should never apply them directly to your skin without one.
Combine three to five drops of essential oil with 1 ounce (30 mL) of your chosen carrier oil, and apply to your burn as needed.
Milk or yogurt
Milk and yogurt can both be a pleasant treatment. Though they don’t necessarily have any healing properties, they are cool and can have a nice, soothing effect when placed on a sunburn. Make sure your milk isn’t too cold; if it is, it may end up aggravating the burn and making it feel worse.
Oatmeal or baking soda bath
Oatmeal or baking soda can offer sunburn relief too. For smaller burns, make a paste with either oatmeal or baking soda, and carefully apply it to the burnt area. For larger or difficult-to-reach burns, try taking a bath in oatmeal or baking soda by adding one to two cups of either substance to a tub of warm or lukewarm water. Be careful when using oatmeal or baking soda to treat your sunburn, as both are exfoliants and may irritate your sensitive skin. If your sunburn is peeling, that exfoliation may help you slough off the skin and relieve your itchiness
You can also try using potatoes to soothe your sunburn. Potatoes are full of starch, which, when applied to a burn, can draw out the heat and reduce pain. You can either use uncooked potato slices and place them on your burn, or grate a cold, raw potato into a pulp and apply it to your skin.
Finally, witch hazel is purported to have a number of different health benefits, and may be a useful home remedy for sunburns as well. Because of its gallic acids, tannins, and antioxidants, it has many anti-inflammatory properties. You can easily purchase witch hazel from most drug, grocery, and beauty stores. Use cotton balls to apply it directly to your sunburnt skin.
The best way to treat a sunburn is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Sunburns are entirely preventable with a very small amount of preparation before spending time outdoors. To prevent a sunburn, you should:
- Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeve shirts or hats, to block the sun
- Avoid being in the sun at length, especially between 10am and 2pm, when the sun is at its strongest
- Use a chapstick or lip balm that is at least SPF 15 to protect your lips
- Wear polarized sunglasses with UV protection to prevent eye damage
- Use a broad-spectrum zinc oxide sunscreen that is at least SPF 30 to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays, and apply it at least 20 minutes before you go outside
- Re-apply sunscreen generously every two hours when spending extended periods of time outside
Sunburns are unpleasant, but they’re avoidable. The importance of sun safety, and especially sunscreen, cannot be overstated.
Take the necessary precautions to protect yourself before you head outside. Your skin will thank you for it.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/statistics/behavior/sunburns.htm
- National Cancer Institute https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/melan.html
- American Cancer Society https://www.cancer.org/cancer/skin-cancer/prevention-and-early-detection/what-is-uv-radiation.html
- U.S. National Library of Medicine https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Melanin
- World Health Organization https://www.who.int/uv/faq/whatisuv/en/index3.html
- Web MD https://www.webmd.com/arthritis/features/pain-relief-how-nsaids-work#1
- PubMed https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17499928
- Use of Essential Oils Following Traumatic Burn Injury: A Case Study. Journal of Pediatric Nursing https://www.pediatricnursing.org/article/S0882-5963(16)30170-1/pdf