Plenty of us have suffered an accidental sunburn. Maybe you didn’t plan to be outdoors and neglected the sunscreen — maybe you didn’t reapply later in the day or just missed a spot or two.
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Whatever happened, your skin is hot, throbbing and lobster-colored. Now what? Dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD, talks with us about sunburn relief — and how to prevent a sunburn next time.
Tips to soothe and relieve sunburn
Here are a few ways to get sunburn relief.
1. Reduce your skin’s temperature
First things first: “Get out of the sun right away and get your skin cooled down,” Dr. Piliang says. “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 out your skin.
If your burn only affects a smaller area, you can cool it down using a cold compress like a wet towel or washcloth. Gently place it on the burn until your skin feels cooler to the touch.
2. Get moisturized
While your skin is still wet, apply a moisturizer cream or lotion to help seal in moisture, Dr. Piliang instructs. In the first few days after the initial burn, apply moisturizer frequently to limit dryness.
Just be sure not to moisturize your skin until it has cooled off, or you’ll trap the heat and cause more pain and inflammation.
3. Apply an itch relief treatment
If you’re feeling itchy, try applying a thin layer of 1% hydrocortisone cream to the sunburned area.
4. Relieve the pain
To relieve pain or burning, apply cooling aloe vera gel for immediate sunburn relief.
“Keep using those cool compresses, too,” says Dr. Piliang. “They feel great and provide some relief from the burning sensation.”
And don’t hesitate to pop a pain reliever if you’re really hurting.
“You can take something for the inflammation, like ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin,” Dr. Piliang says.
5. Avoid ointments with irritating ingredients
Skip ointments and petroleum jelly, which trap heat.
And avoid topical treatments ending in “-caine,” like benzocaine and lidocaine, which can cause allergic reactions that can worsen your inflammation.
“Pass on any creams that include alcohol, which will dry out your skin and make it harder to heal,” cautions Dr. Piliang.
6. Keep yourself hydrated
Sunburns draw fluids away from other parts of your body to your skin, which can quickly dehydrate you. What helps a sunburn is hydration.
“It’s really important to make sure you’re hydrating well,” Dr. Piliang notes. “Drink a lot of water. Sports drinks that replenish electrolytes can also help.”
7. Don’t touch blisters
Even though you might be tempted to, don’t touch those sunburn blisters. You’ll cause more harm than good.
“To prevent infection and scarring, let blisters heal on their own,” advises Dr. Piliang.
8. Know when to see your doctor
Sometimes, at-home remedies don’t cut it, and seeking medical attention is the best bet.
“Call your doctor 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,” says Dr. Piliang.
Preventing accidental sunburn
Next time you’re headed outside, make sure you take these preventive measures.
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.”
You can also carry your shade with you. She recommends keeping a hat in your car (and ideally wearing 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.
Wear protective clothing
Consider stashing protective clothing in your car, too.
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. 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,” Dr. Piliang notes.
If you can’t invest in new clothes, you can wash the ones you already have in a treatment designed to boost their natural ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) from UPF 5 to UPF 30. Typically found at your local drugstore or online, simply add the treatment to your normal laundry cycle, and it’ll last for 20 washes.
Apply a sunscreen every day
This may sound like a no-brainer, but many of us forget to apply sunscreen.
“You have to make sure you put on enough,” says Dr. Piliang. “It takes an ounce of sunscreen — that’s the amount in a shot glass — to cover your whole body.”
You can choose from a chemical or mineral sunscreen (which is also sometimes referred to as physical sunscreen) that contains titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
“Chemical sunscreens undergo a chemical reaction with your skin and they act like a sponge and absorb that ultraviolet light so that it doesn’t damage the skin,” explains Dr. Piliang. “Chemical sunscreens may be a little more irritating. If you have sensitive skin, then you really want to look for mineral sunscreen.”
And don’t forget to reapply sunscreen throughout the day — another crucial mistake many of us make.
“You want to reapply your sunscreen every 90 minutes or so,” adds Dr. Piliang. “If you’ve been in the water and you get out and you towel off, you want to reapply then because you’ve washed off quite a bit of it when you got out of the water.”