How to Treat a Sunburn
Expert advice on soothing summer’s biggest buzzkill.
It’s confession time—we obviously understand the importance of slathering sunscreen on every single nook and cranny of our bodies, no matter the weather (cloudy days are equally dangerous!), but sometimes you find yourself on an idyllic stretch of beach or running around the city from one meeting to the next, and you just plain FORGET to reapply or *gasp* apply any in the first place. We know, we know, harmful UVA and UVB rays cause everything from skin cancer to premature aging. Instead of loading up on the guilt, why don’t we all take a second and acknowledge that we’re flawed humans and learn what to do when we inevitably slip and wind up with a sunburn?
We asked New York–based dermatologist Dr. Neil Sadick about the steps you should take in case you notice your skin is developing a sunburn. “The first thing you should do is seek shade, cool it off, take a quick, cold shower, and apply a cold compress to get rid of any heat. After you’ve cooled the skin and while it’s still damp, you can add a moisturizer, but avoid those that contain oils, as they can trap heat and aggravate the area.”
The next few days after a sunburn are always the worst in terms of pain and appearance, but there are ways to minimize your new lobsterlike status. “For pain relief and to decrease the redness [and] inflammation, you can take some non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, [like] Advil, once a day. OTC topical ointments containing anesthetics like benzocaine are also safe and can provide pain relief.” Remember that alarmingly green aloe vera goo? Consider it your new best friend. To keep it from getting all over your clothes, Dr. Sadik recommends wearing loose-fitting clothing while you concentrate on getting extra hydration, moisturizing, and, of course, staying out of the sun.
Since we are in the age of the internet-endorsed home remedy, we wanted to know if there are any concoctions we can whip up with ingredients from the grocery store. “Cold fat-free yogurt or skim milk is both soothing and protective, as [they are] rich in protein. Dip compresses into the milk or coat the area with yogurt for 15 to 20 minutes, and repeat every two to four hours. Green tea [also] has anti-inflammatory and pain-relief properties. Soak tea bags in cold water and apply them to the affected area.” If you want to make your sunburn aftercare a more spa-like experience, you can even add a few tablespoons of oatmeal or apple cider vinegar to your bath.
Exactly how long are you in for this sunburn aftercare? “Recovery time depends on whether your sunburn was mild, moderate, or severe. The effects of any sunburn are experienced approximately six hours after exposure and last around three to five days in mild cases, and up to a week for moderate cases. The average time of complete healing is eight to ten weeks.” An afternoon eating brunch in the sun is way different than an entire day relaxing on the beach, so be sure to check if you have any symptoms of a severe burn, including heat stroke, nausea, fever, chills, dehydration, blistering, and cardiac problems. If so, don’t hesitate to see a doctor!
Be especially aware if you have any exposed scars or tattoos while out in the sun. “The structure of scar tissue is not the same as that of healthy skin. It’s more prone to sunburn, [and] prolonged sun exposure can permanently darken a scar, especially in skin of color. In tattooed skin, the epidermis is already damaged, so a sunburn is particularly damaging and can progress from moderate to severe quite quickly. Aside from destroying the tattoo and breaking down the ink, you’re exposing the dermis, which puts it at risk for scarring.”
Your face is also susceptible and more sensitive to sun damage year-round, so plan on stocking up on a quality sunscreen formulated especially for facial skin. “It’s not a marketing hype—these face-specific sunscreens are lighter, absorb better, and are less irritating for the skin on the face. Sunburn on the face and body is treated similarly; however, avoid using anesthetics like benzocaine to your face, as they can be particularly allergenic and irritating.” We hope you won’t need these tips since you’re definitely going to invest in quality, specialized sunscreens and carry them EVERYWHERE with you (right?!), but just in case, keep this guide handy all year long. You’re perfect enough already.