How to Treat an Accidental Sunburn (and Prevent It Next Time)
You swore the sunscreen was in your bag. It wasn’t. What now? Dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD, explains how to soothe that sunburn — and offers tips for preventing it next time.
Plenty of us have suffered an accidental sunburn. You know, the one you get when you thought you packed the sunscreen only to realize when you arrive at your destination that it’s nowhere to be found.
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Or maybe you ended up outside when you hadn’t planned on it, you forgot to reapply it later in the day — or you just flat out missed a huge spot during what you thought was a thorough application.
However it happened, the end result is that your skin is now hot, throbbing and turning lobster colored fast. Now what?
First of all, “get out of the sun right away and get your skin cooled down,” advises dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD. “Take a cool bath or shower to bring the temperature of your skin down.” This helps reduce inflammation. Make it short though — excessive time in the water dries your skin out.
Another option to cool your skin? Use a cold compress, especially if your burn only affects one area. Wet a towel or washcloth with cool water and gently place it on the burn. Repeat until your skin feels cooler to the touch.
Next, while your skin is still wet, apply a moisturizer cream or lotion to help seal in moisture, says Dr. Piliang. Don’t use ointment and don’t moisturize until your skin has cooled; these both trap heat, causing more pain and inflammation. Apply moisturizer to the burn frequently the first few days to limit dryness.
Once your skin is moisturized, “You can take something for the inflammation, like ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin,” she says. To relieve pain or burning, apply aloe vera gel. For itching, try a thin layer of one percent hydrocortisone cream. You can keep using cool compresses as often as desired as well.
Because a sunburn draws fluids away from other parts of your body to your skin, “it’s really important to make sure you’re hydrating well,” notes Dr. Piliang. “Drink a lot of water. Sports drinks that replenish electrolytes can also help.”
If you have blisters over a large area, you’re in a lot of pain, or you’ve developed a fever, chills, dizziness or confusion, call your doctor.
So what can you do to minimize your chance of getting a sunburn the next time you’re caught without your sunscreen? “Find shade,” Dr. Piliang says. “That can really help.”
She also recommends keeping a hat in your car for sunscreen emergencies, though ideally you already wear one any time you’re out in the sun. Tightly woven fabric is best, as is a brim that’s two to three inches wide so it protects your face, ears and neck.
Consider stashing protective clothing in your car as well. It’s a good habit to wear loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants when you’re in the sun, though white clothing isn’t as protective as darker colors, notes Dr. Piliang. As with hats, the tighter the weave of the fabric, the more protection you’ll get. “You can also buy shirts that have SPF in them at big box stores for an affordable price,” she says.
If you don’t want to invest in new clothes, you can wash the ones you already have in a treatment that’s designed to boost their natural ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) from UPF 5 to UPF 30, she adds. Simply add the treatment to your normal laundry cycle and it lasts for 20 washes.