Sunburn Relief When You Say ‘Ouch’

Tips to Heal and Soothe Sunburned Skin

Summer is a time when the days are longer and we look forward to spending more time outside. Unfortunately, most people will experience sunburn during their lifetime and it usually happens when least expected. Often, people don’t realize that they are getting plenty of ultraviolet (UV) radiation when it is cloudy outside or even in the middle of winter, especially at higher altitude. The higher you are, the less dense the air and the less protection you have from UV radiation – about 4 percent for every 1,000 feet in altitude. While it takes about 25 minutes to burn in New York, it can take as little as six minutes at 10,000 feet! The time it takes for you to sunburn will depend on how much protective melanin (the substance that determines your natural skin color) you have in your skin, the elevation of your environment, and whether there is snow or water involved (more reflection of the UV rays). Basically, if you do not need a flashlight outside, ultraviolet rays are plentiful and potentially harmful to your skin.

Let’s talk about what to do to support healing and soothe stinging skin. Here are my top seven sunburn tips!

  1. Get out of the sun. As soon as you think you may be getting sunburned, get indoors. And, stay indoors for the next week to give your skin a chance to heal and repair. Any extra ultraviolet radiation will continue to cause further DNA damage to your cells, so give it a break from the sun. The first sign of sunburn unfortunately becomes apparent within four to five hours of sun exposure and will continue to develop for the next 24 to 72 hours. So, it is urgent to immediately get out of the sun once you start noticing pink, stinging skin, as this is just the beginning. For more severe sunburn, swelling and blisters may become visible the next day. 
  1. Cool your skin down. Take a cool bath and add soothing oils like chamomile or calendula. This helps to reduce inflammation and support the skin’s healing process. This will also help dead skin cells to gently be removed without peeling and flaking. After exiting the shower, while your skin is still moist, apply a moisturizer to help keep your skin hydrated. Look for a moisturizer that contains aloe vera and avoid anything that contains petroleum, benzocaine or lidocaine, as these ingredients can irritate your skin.
  1. Calm your skin with milk compresses. Mix equal parts milk and cool water in a bowl. Then soak a clean cloth in the bowl and apply it to your sunburned skin for 5-10 minutes a few times daily. The evaporation of the milk and water causes a cooling sensation, and the protein in the milk soothes the inflamed skin, making it feel much better.
  1. Consider anti-inflammatory medications and supplements. Ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin may help relieve pain and reduce any swelling or redness. Topically applying over-the-counter hydrocortisone for a few days may also help. In 2017, there was a study at Case Western University School of Medicine that showed that high doses of vitamin D can help reduce a sunburn when taken immediately afterward. Thoughts are that vitamin D suppresses inflammation and promotes repair. I also recommend taking vitamins C and E as both have high antioxidant properties. Omega-3 fish oil can also help reduce inflammation from the oxidative damage.
  1. Drink adequate water. When your skin barrier is compromised by a sunburn, you are prone to dehydration. Drinking extra water will help compensate so if your urine is not clear, drink more water.
  1. Avoid vigorous rubbing. If you develop blisters or peeling, leave the skin alone. Don’t pick, peel, scratch or rub your skin. Allow your skin to heal and naturally shed these damaged layers when it is ready. Forcing the skin off will predispose you to inflammation, scarring and infection. Using a fragrance-free and chemical-free moisturizer will help. If you experience significant itching, hydrocortisone twice a day for up to a week can help.
  2. Take severe sunburn seriously. If you have a fever, chills, blisters or feel incredibly uncomfortable, head to the doctor. While you can manage mild sunburn at home, severe sunburn may scar or lead to infection so seek medical expertise.

You’ll notice that the overall theme in treating sunburn is to reduce inflammation and support your skin to naturally heal itself. Although it may seem like a temporary and uncomfortable condition, sunburn can cause long-lasting damage to the skin. The best advice is to avoid getting sunburn in the first place. In my next article, I’ll discuss how to best protect yourself from UV radiation and answer some common myths about sun protection.

Side Pearl: Natural Remedy for Sunburn

There’s a natural remedy I like for sunburn. I sometimes call it a sunburn mask. Mixing soothing oatmeal with mānuka honey and applying it for 20 to 30 minutes will reduce inflammation and inhibit infection.

If you have a “burning” question to ask, please email me at advice@drjenhaley.com and your question may be posted in a future article.

Jennifer Haley, MD, FAAD

Dr. Haley is a board-certified dermatologist with a degree in nutrition science from Cornell University. She has been an NPC Bikini competitor and a consultant to the U.S. Capitol. Dr. Haley advises multiple global Fortune 500 companies and speaks internationally on lifestyle strategies to achieve optimal skin health. Dr. Haley practices at Haley Dermatology & Skin Care Center, PC in Scottsdale, AZ and Park City, UT, where she enjoys an active lifestyle with her husband and children. For more information, visit drjenhaley.com

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