How to Treat a Bad Sunburn

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

If you wear sunscreen every day, apply it properly and reapply it every few hours (or whenever you’ve been sweating, swimming, or towelling off), then you don’t need this article. But here we are. You’ve been burned, and you’re hurting. What now?

It’s not possible to make a sunburn go away, but there are a few things you can do to help it feel better while you wait for it to heal. And it truly is healing — a sunburn is a real injury your body needs to recover from.

Get out of the sun and put on some dang sunscreen

The number one thing you need to do is not make it worse. If you’re in the sun when you notice you’re getting a sunburn, get out of the sun right away. If you don’t see the redness until the next morning, make sure to sunscreen up before you leave the house.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing sun-blocking fabrics, too. Some beach-specific clothing may come with an SPF label on the tag, but in general you want something that isn’t see-through when you hold it up to the light.

Consider a lotion with aloe, soy or calamine

Aloe gel feels good on sunburned skin, and the AAD recommends it too, along with lotions that contain soy. Calamine lotion can also feel soothing.

Hydrocortisone cream, available over-the-counter at pharmacies, is an anti-inflammatory that can reduce swelling, itching and redness. It’s good to have on hand for mosquito bites anyway, but you can also use it for sunburns.

Don’t put anything irritating on your skin

There are a lot of different home remedies out there, and you should probably skip all of them. Don’t put vinegar or witch hazel on a sunburn, for instance. Many experts advise against topical anesthetics because they can irritate skin as well. (I personally love my aloe gel with lidocaine, but consider yourself warned.)

Take cool baths or showers

One of the most effective ways to get relief is the simplest: just soak yourself in a cool bath. Don’t scrub, since that could irritate the skin, and don’t use any more soap than you need to. Pat your skin dry when you get out of the tub, and apply a moisturiser.

These should be cool baths, by the way — not cold. Ice baths and ice packs can irritate the skin. Go easy on yourself.

Take care of your whole body

Since a sunburn is an injury that needs to heal, you’ll want to give your body a chance to recover. Stay hydrated and consider taking an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen to temporarily reduce pain and redness.

Sunburns often occur alongside heat illness or dehydration, so keep an eye out for those symptoms. If you develop chills, fever, weakness, dizziness or a rapid pulse or breathing, seek medical help.

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