The 9 Best Ways to Treat a Sunburn
These smart do-it-yourself treatments can help ease the pain and even save your skin
Okay, so you blew it. You went out without your sunscreen and got a burn so bad it makes a lobster look pale. What can you do to ease the pain fast and save your skin?
Science has found some smart ways to take the sting out of a sunburn and even help prevent the cancer-causing damage of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
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Swallow an ibuprofen. Take one right away, even before your skin is red and you’re in searing pain, advises the Skin Cancer Foundation. Elizabeth S. Martin, MD, agrees. “It will cut down on the skin inflammation and swelling and help with discomfort.” Martin is a Hoover, Alabama dermatologist and former president of the Alabama Dermatological Society. “If it’s a choice between acetaminophen or ibuprofen, choose the latter,” she adds. Ibuprofen (such as Advil) fights inflammation, while acetaminophen (best known as Tylenol) doesn’t.
Avoid over-the-counter pain sprays that contain benzocaine or lidocaine because they can irritate the skin, says Martin. And definitely don’t apply petroleum jelly. It will only trap the heat.
Use a cool compress. Or stand in a cool shower. Either will take some of the heat out of the burn and make you feel better. “Gently pat dry afterwards,” says Martin. “You don’t want to rub your skin, which can actually denude it — remove skin — especially if you have blisters.” Those blisters? “Leave them alone,” she advises. “The blisters are like a natural dressing, the body’s way of allowing healing to begin and protecting you from infection.”
Get milk. As an alternative to a cool-water compress, soak a cloth in cold skim milk and apply to sunburned area. The coolness will ease the initial sizzle, and the milk provides a protective protein coating that helps shorten the discomfort, says the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Hydrate yourself and your skin. That swelling you see in your sunburned skin is fluid being lost, says Martin. Drink lots of water to replace it. And use a mild moisturizer to keep skin moist while it goes through the natural flaking process.
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Apply green tea. Soak a clean cloth in cool green tea (another alternative to water or skim milk) and use as a soothing compress. Use plain brewed tea, not sweetened bottled tea. Studies have shown that not only can topical application of green tea help prevent sunburn, it can also protect your skin even after you’ve been exposed to ultraviolet light, say Jessica Wu, MD, author of Feed Your Face: Younger, Smoother Skin and a Beautiful Body in 28 Delicious Days. In a study in lab animals,green tea, which is full of antioxidants called catechins, helped speed healing and prevent the DNA damage that contributes to cancer. The study was published last year in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology.
Take an oatmeal bath. Finely grind oatmeal in a food processor or blender. That turns it into “colloidal oatmeal,” which has been shown in a number studies to work as an anti-inflammatory when applied to skin as a paste or used in a bath. Bonus: A recent study in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology found it also curbs itching.
Snap off an aloe vera leaf. Martin says she often recommends this succulent plant, sometimes called the “burn plant” because of its folk medicine use for all kinds of burns. The colorless, mucilaginous gel that you see when you snap off a leaf and slice into it contains active ingredients that may promote burn and wound healing (though studies have yielded conflicting results).
Use honey for healing. A number of good studies have found that honey helps heal burns and wounds, but the researchers used medicinal honey, not the supermarket version that comes in a plastic bear. You can buy medical-grade Manuka honey, which comes from New Zealand, online for $15 and up.
Spread on some calendula cream. This flower-based remedy has been shown to ease burns and help wounds heal, possibly by increasing blood flow to the injured area and encouraging new tissue growth. It’s only been tested in animals, but it’s safe for humans. Use a 2 to 5 percent cream and apply three to four times a day as needed.