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How to Treat a Sunburn

How to treat a sunburn
How to treat a sunburn
In an effort to take advantage of living in California, my husband and I drove down to San Diego to check out the Padres’ stadium (very nice). Did you hear about that absurdly long Padres Game on Sunday? Well, I took that picture from my seat, at that game. No, we did not stay for all 18 innings, luckily we left at the beginning of the 7th.

Unfortunately, I forgot my new Murad Sunscreen at home on the counter. Turns out that sunscreen doesn’t work so well when it’s still in the tube a hundred miles away rather than on your skin. So, I spent about 3 hours in direct sunlight with only my SPF 15 daily lotion to protect me! My husband (a real keeper) noticed I was “getting pink” and recommended heading for home. Unfortunately, the damage was already done and my nose and forehead turned a bit pink over the next few hours!

Fortunately, there are a few things that can be done to help ease the pain (and decrease the damage) of a sunburn!

Read on to learn how to treat a sunburn.

First, you’ll need to understand the different phases of a sunburn:
• Immediate Redness: Occurs within minutes and fades
• Delayed Redness: Occurs after the immediate redness has faded and lasts for days
• Desquamation (peeling): Usually starts within the week

Note that all of these phases can be accompanied by different degrees of vascular permeability (basically, leaky blood vessels) that can result in swelling and blisters.

In addition, the UV damage induces actual DNA damage within the skin cells (the keratinocytes) which either then needs to be repaired by the skin or may result in cell death. The cell can never truly “fix” its DNA so this damage can build up over time and result in problems such as photo-aging of the skin or even cancer.

Things that help:
• Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Medications (Advil, Motrin): May decrease some of the early redness and decrease the degree of damage caused by the burn
• Ease the Pain & Itching: Itching can definitely make a bad sunburn much more uncomfortable! Try cool compresses or baths (avoid anything hot, either luke warm or slightly cool will be much more soothing), even cool lotions and creams will feel great, such as that aloe vera gel your mom used to keep in the fridge all summer long!
• Anti-histamines such as Benadryl will help with the itchiness but not the underlying issue.
• Moisturize! Applying lotion very liberally and frequently can help with itchiness and decrease peeling
• Vitamin E also helps to decrease redness and damage from a sunburn, but note that it needs to be applied pretty much as you are burning in order to see the effects. Perhaps make a ritual of applying a cream with Vitamin E after each sun exposure?
Oral Vitamins have been shown to make a difference! Studies have shown that the combination of 2g (2000 mg) of Vitamin C with 1000 IU of Vitamin E will decrease the sunburn reaction while Carotenoids (25 mg/day) and 500 IU Vitamin E will protect you against the development of redness with sun exposure. Vitamin C also will decrease both damage from the sun as well as redness after exposure. Bottom line? Vitamins that have anti-oxidant activity are good! Eat your veggies or take a vitamin daily.

Things that don’t help:
• Steroids, both oral and topical: Studies have shown that if the burn is bad enough it might be worth a try under a doctor’s supervision, but usually only have very small effects on the degree of redness
• Never unroof any of the blisters. They are protecting the fragile skin beneath from infection, so allow them to slough off on their own over time.

Most Important Tips!
Your skin is much more prone to another burn in the week after a sunburn. Please take extra precautions to decrease your sun exposure during this time period!

Remember, any change in your skin’s color means that damage has been caused! This is regardless of whether that color change is a tan or a burn. There is no such thing as safe tanning. Remember your sunscreen!

Best Sunscreen Information
Find more information about how sunscreens work, application tips and product reviews in my sunscreen guide

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About Me

I’m a doctor, a mommy and a bit of a beauty addict. If you let me, I can take 2 hours to get ready in the morning. Really. I'm on a quest for faster beauty that works!

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  1. 5.29.08

    I was at an air show a couple weeks ago and our whole family spent the entire day with our faces upturned to the sun, and my Oil of Olay 15SPF moisturizer was apparently a huge help, judging by how my husband and daughters ended up. My poor daughters burned terribly, and it never even occurred to us at the time that their use of Pro-Activ was making them even more susceptible to burning. They’re loading up on the Neutrogena sunscreen even for casual exposure now!

  2. 5.29.08

    I just got totally sunburnt at the weekend! I still think aloe is a great soother

  3. 6.2.08
    Nastia said:

    Whenever I get burned I take ibuprofen for a few days (about 3, twice a day) and use a aloe rich lotion very often for a while and never develop any peeling.

  4. 6.27.12
    jane gee said:

    I have been working with essential oils and natural beauty for 30 years. The very best thing for sunburn is a cut tomato wiped over the sunburn. It re establishes the ph of the skin, cools and soothes immediately. Prevents blistering and often times peeling. If a tomato is not on hand then cold black tea will do a similar thing. Growing up in the hot Australian Sun taught me to take care. Wear a hat, and dont stay out so long! The problem with sunscreen is that people stay out a lot longer than if they didnt have it on.

  5. 4.21.13
    Anonymous said:

    thanks! just applied vitamin e oil…hope it works…? 🙂

  6. 4.22.18
    gisele sterling said:

    Same here! As I burn easily, I have to use after sun lotion always. And usually my skin peels and gets discolored and I hate it! I have tried a lot of different other lotions, but none of them comes even close to the Made from Earth Aloe & Jojoba Lotion. I needed it ASAP and purchased from Amazon with prime shipping. It removed my sun burnt red skin overnight!

    Bear in mind this is a 8-ounce bottle, and lasted me and 2 kids about 1 month in the summer.