Tried-and-True Ways to Treat Sunburn: Remedies That Work

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

During the summer months, lots of us love to take advantage of the warmer temperatures by spending as much time as possible outdoors. But whether you prefer jumping in the pool or sunbathing on a beach towel, when you’re outside, you are at risk of getting a sunburn.

Understanding how to protect your skin before it is exposed to the sun’s rays and what to do if you get burned is very important. Being proactive can significantly reduce the risks of sun-related conditions such as skin cancer and premature aging.

How long does it take for a sunburn to go away?

It is never fun to get a sunburn, especially if it sticks around for longer than you like. How long a sunburn lasts depends on how severely the skin was burned, and symptoms typically start to arise around four hours after exposure. Symptoms may worsen after 24 to 36 hours, and the worst pain is likely to occur 3 to 48 hours after being burned.

A mild sunburn typically takes around three days to heal, while a moderate sunburn will stick around for five days. Common symptoms of these first-degree sunburns are peeling skin, redness, warm and tight skin, soreness, and swelling.

If you have a severe sunburn, it could last for more than seven days. You may have second-degree burn symptoms such as deep red skin, pain, wet-looking or shiny skin, swelling, blistering, or white discoloration in the damaged area.

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Whether you have a first-degree or second-degree burn, the visible symptoms will eventually go away. However, deeper damage can be permanent. UVA rays can damage the DNA in your skin cells. If the DNA is damaged enough, skin cancer can develop. If you are outdoors often, it is vital to get regular check-ups with a dermatologist to ensure your skin is cancer free.

Sunburn treatment tips: Immediate relief

One of the best ways to minimize further damage to your sunburnt skin is to reduce the heat. As soon as you suspect that you may have a burn, get out of the sun and go indoors. Hop in a cool bath or shower, but keep the temperature moderate, as extreme temperatures can damage your skin further. Once you get out of the tub or shower, pat yourself dry with a clean towel. Avoid rubbing the skin and leave a little water to provide your body with moisture that you can further lock in with a lotion. This will also prevent your burn from becoming drier than it already is.

Making sure you are hydrated is just as important as moisturizing your skin. 

Make sure you’re drinking enough water throughout the day. Recommendations vary, but you can aim for about 64 ounces per day. It is especially important to drink a glass of water right after waking up. Your body can get very dehydrated throughout the night, especially if you have a sunburn. This is because the heat of the burn tends to draw fluid to the skin’s surface to care for the wound.

If your sunburn starts to get worse and the skin blisters, avoid touching it. This means you likely have a second-degree burn, and it is important not to disrupt the healing process. Opening a wound also significantly increases the chance of infection. When you are outdoors, keep your blisters and sunburnt skin covered to prevent further sun damage. Wearing clothing made of tightly woven fabrics helps prevent light from coming through.

You can also take over-the-counter painkillers to reduce redness, swelling, and general discomfort.

A woman with a sunburn

Sunburn remedies

Whether you prefer over-the-counter medication, lotions, creams, or homemade remedies, taking care of yourself after a sunburn can help reduce your symptoms. Multiple applications may be necessary for more severe burns. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you have a severe burn or any complications.

Over-the-counter medications

  • Ibuprofen and naproxen are examples of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that can help relieve the inflammation and pain of a sunburn.
  • Swelling, itching, and pain can be relieved by an over-the-counter topical 1% hydrocortisone cream.
  • Oral analgesics can help ease overall pain.
  • Diphenhydramine is an oral antihistamine that can relieve itching from peeling skin.
  • Certain gels with honey can effectively prevent infection and promote healing due to the antibacterial agent present from the high sugar content. Be sure to consult with your doctor or pharmacist, though, as some honey can contain bacteria and lead to infection.

What are the best lotions and creams for sunburn?

  • Lotions and gels containing aloe vera will be some of the most effective products for soothing and moisturizing your skin, especially if it is peeling. Studies have shown that aloe vera products heal the skin quicker than a 1% silver sulfadiazine ointment. In addition, aloe contains an anesthetic called lidocaine that can relieve pain and help with general wound repair.
  • Vitamin E is an ingredient in lotions and creams that calms the skin by protecting it from some of the damaging effects of radiation caused by the sun’s rays.
  • Tea tree oil is antiseptic and helps moisturize the burn.
  • Try to stick to lotions and creams that are lightweight and non-greasy.
  • Do not use any oil- or petroleum-based creams because they will worsen your burn by trapping heat in the skin.

Home remedies for sunburn

  • Essential oils like lavender can soothe the skin when diluted and applied in small amounts.
  • Apply cool milk or yogurt to your burn with a cloth to ease any discomfort. A protein film will form and provide relief and temporary protection.
  • Cucumbers can be chilled, made into a paste, and applied to the burned skin. In addition, cucumbers can relieve pain due to their natural analgesic and antioxidant properties.

Lotions to treat sunburn

How to prevent and treat sunburn peeling

If you are going to be outdoors for an extended period of time, try to plan ahead and avoid the hours between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. If you must be outside during this time, spend as much time as possible in the shade. Stay hydrated while enjoying the fresh air to keep your skin moisturized.

While you are outdoors, cover your skin by wearing a hat, long-sleeved shirt, pants, and close-toed shoes. Use sunscreen with at least SPF 30 on any exposed skin, especially your face. It can even be essential to wear sunscreen indoors and in your car because you can still get a sunburn through the windows.

If you do end up with a sunburn, your skin may start peeling three to eight days after the sun exposure. Picking at or peeling your skin can introduce bacteria and lead to infection, so try to resist the temptation to scratch.

Applying ice wrapped in a cloth to the skin or taking a cool bath can help reduce the peeling. 

Taking cool showers helps lower the temperature of your skin and eases pain and itching. To prevent further damage to your skin, avoid exfoliating it until your burn is fully healed. Do not use water that is too hot or cold, and be gentle when you wash your skin.

If you don’t feel like taking a cool shower, try an oatmeal bath instead. Colloidal oatmeal can reduce swelling and trap moisture against your skin to help the burn heal. This type of oatmeal has anti-inflammatory properties, and it can be made at home. Blend up uncooked whole oats until they create a fine powder. Add one cup of the powder to a lukewarm or cool bath and soak for 10 to 15 minutes to soothe your peeling skin.

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After your shower or oatmeal bath, the pores of your skin will be open. This is a great time to apply aloe vera or moisturizer to your sunburn. Doing this daily can slow or reduce the peeling, as well as calm the skin and inflammation.

Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications can also relieve your pain and soothe the skin. If your skin is peeling from a sunburn, it will typically heal within a week or less.

When to see a doctor if you have a sunburn

While taking the proper steps at home can greatly relieve your sunburn, some burns are too severe to tend to alone. Seeking medical attention should be your next step if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • High fever or chills
  • Headache and confusion
  • Severe pain
  • Dehydration or nausea
  • A skin infection with pus, swelling, or red streaks coming from a blister
  • The sunburn covers a large portion of your body and is blistering
  • The burn lasts longer than a week
  • No at-home care is helping ease the pain or redness of the burn

Final thoughts

Lots of us will experience at least one sunburn during our lifetime, so it is essential to know how to prevent them and what to do if your skin does get burned. Wearing the proper clothing, using sunscreen, and staying hydrated are great steps to take to keep your skin healthy and protected.

If you do get a sunburn, reduce the symptoms and speed up the healing process through measures such as taking cool showers, applying aloe vera products, taking over-the-counter medications, and preventing further irritation and damage. You can still enjoy the sunny days and take care of your skin.

January 12, 2023