13 sunburn remedies to try this summer, because aloe's not your only option
As the song goes, summer can be cruel—especially when you leave your day at the beach with a nasty sunburn. It’s far better to prevent sunburn than have to worry about treating your skin later, but because the sun can occasionally get the best of us, these sunburn remedies might become your BFFs this summer.
You know what sunburn feels like—hot, tight skin that’s red and painful to the touch. And while you want it to go away as soon as possible for pain-relief and appearance purposes, treating a sunburn is beneficial to your overall skin health, too. “Sunburns are intensive inflammation full of toxic free radicals that can be extra harmful to the skin,” board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon Dr. Ellen Marmur of Marmur Medical told HG. “Rapidly calming the skin and reducing inflammation is key for healing.”
When it comes to natural sunburn remedies, aloe vera reigns supreme. “Aloe vera comes from a succulent plant and is an herbal medicine used by a variety of cultures for many years,” board-certified physician assistant Sydney Karp of Cybele Fishman Integrative Dermatology said. “The clear gel from the plant is extremely cooling and soothing, making it perfect to use for acute sunburn.”
Board-certified dermatologic surgeon Dr. Dendy Engelman of Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery also noted the calming and anti-inflammatory properties of aloe. And Dr. Marmur stated how the juice from the pulp of the plant contains natural hormones that can help with itchiness related to sunburn.
But maybe you’re looking for something in addition to aloe, so HG asked these three skin care experts to provide alternative remedies to help heal your sunburn. There isn’t scientific evidence to prove that all these alternatives work, which means there is some debate on their effectiveness. So readers should be aware that this article is no substitute for medical advice. But there’s certainly anecdotal evidence to support these ideas, and maybe one of the below treatments will provide you with soothing solace from your sunburn this summer.
1Water, baking soda, and oatmeal mixture
No, this isn’t a recipe for oatmeal cookies. Dr. Marmur said that when this mixture is applied to your sunburnt skin, it can help cool the heat. Add a quarter cup of baking soda and one cup cooked oatmeal to a big bowl of water. Then, put the sunburn remedy on cold towels and apply to your skin to feel some sweet relief.
2Oatmeal and oil
Dr. Engelman also recommended oatmeal since it soothes the skin. Her suggestion is to mix oatmeal with either olive or coconut oil and then apply to your sunburnt area. “Start with half a cup of olive or coconut oil and slowly [add] oatmeal until the texture is a thick paste,” Dr. Engelman said. Because this remedy is a bit on the thick side, she suggested you leave it on for 10-15 minutes and then take a shower to rinse off.
Want to save your oatmeal for breakfast? Well, Dr. Engelman said you can simply use oil on your skin. “Oil-based products are the best way to add moisture back into the skin. They are easily absorbed and penetrate deep into the skin,” she said. When it comes to sunburn, her top choice is coconut oil because it has antibacterial properties and will help to reduce itchiness and calm inflammation.
Karp also recommended using coconut oil immediately after getting sunburnt to “help repair the damaged skin barrier.” As she explained, “[Coconut oil] has medium-chain fatty acids, vitamin E, polyphenols, and other antioxidants, which are both moisturizing and naturally calming.”
4Beer—but not for drinking
An old-school tip from Dr. Marmur is to apply beer to the sunburn. But she advises against using diet or lite beers, since they have too many bubbles. There isn’t much research on the effects of beer on sunburn, but you can find some anecdotal evidence online. Plus, Dr. Marmur said good old-fashioned beer “contains niacin, proteins, vitamins, and antioxidants, which are soothing.”
5Drink water, not alcohol
You might now be thinking, “Since applying beer to your skin can help, surely drinking it will help too.” But not so fast. Dr. Marmur made it clear that it’s important to hydrate with water—not alcohol—when you have a sunburn. Also, drinking while in the sun could actually lead to sunburn. “Beer breaks down to a chemical called acetaldehyde, which can make you more sensitive to the sun,” Karp said, which is something a British Journal of Dermatology study theorized per HuffPost U.K.
As for whether or not drinking water can help your skin recover after you’ve been burnt, that’s debatable. “It would be rare and extremely dangerous to be so burned that you risk dehydration, and drinking water won’t help the skin recover more quickly,” Dr. Engelman said. But consuming H20 does have other benefits. “Drinking water doesn’t necessarily help with the sunburn, but it does help to keep the skin from being dehydrated,” Dr. Marmur said.
As both Dr. Marmur and Karp explained, sunburn takes water away from your body by drawing the fluid to your skin’s surface. “Also, in rare cases of very bad sunburns, people lose water from their damaged skin barrier and can escalate into sunstroke,” Dr. Marmur added. So staying hydrated is of the utmost importance even if it doesn’t cool the burn on your skin.
Both Dr. Engelman and Karp recommended using a topical steroid if you want something a little more pharmaceutical. Karp said that over-the-counter corticosteroids help with inflammation, itching, and redness, and Dr. Engelman said they will help your skin recover more quickly. A study in the Archives of Dermatology via Reuters questioned the effectiveness of corticosteroid ointments as sunburn remedies, but these cooling creams may provide some relief. And if you have really bad, full-body sunburn, Karp said that you may want to take oral steroids. Always check with your doctor first.
7Arnica montana pills
Dr. Marmur said that Arnica montana reduces redness and excessive heat, and “also helps reduce bruising, sunburns, and inflammation, and speeds healing.” But she recommended you take it in pill form since “arnica gels can be irritating to delicate skin due to the high content of rubbing alcohol.”
8Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar has been touted as a miraculous cure-all for skin care and digestive health. And Dr. Engelman said it could help with sunburn as well. “If your whole body is burned, try an apple cider vinegar bath. After soaking for 10 minutes, the apple cider vinegar will have helped restore your skin’s pH levels, and your skin will feel cool and soothed. The anti-inflammatory properties of apple cider vinegar soothe irritated skin, and acetic acid softens skin to help dead cells slough off.”
As for how much apple cider vinegar to use, she said to put eight ounces in a bathtub filled with warm water and soak in it for 10-15 minutes. If you don’t have a bathtub? “Mix together half a cup of apple cider vinegar and four cups water. Douse a washcloth with the solution, and apply to sunburned skin,” she said.
But not every expert we spoke to supported the use of ACV on burnt skin. Karp said she believes it would be very irritating to sunburnt skin, and Dr. Marmur noted that it’s “too intense for sunburnt skin due to chemistry.” There have been cases of chemical burns from the topical application of ACV, so perhaps speak with your doctor or try applying ACV to one section of your skin before soaking in it.
Another controversial remedy is also a classic skin care treatment—witch hazel. Dr. Marmur didn’t recommend it for the same reasons she said to avoid apple cider vinegar, and Karp said it’s an astringent, which could dry your skin out even more. Yet, Dr. Engelman is a fan. “Witch hazel has anti-inflammatory and astringent properties, which make it great for itches and irritations,” she said. “I love that it has a cooling effect so it provides instant relief. The acid will gently exfoliate, while the botanicals nourish and balance.”
Berkeley Wellness cited some studies that looked into the effectiveness of witch hazel and pointed to a study in Dermatology that found that witch hazel lotion reduced skin inflammation after exposure to UV rays (which cause sunburn) better than other lotions. So if you do want to give this one a try, Dr. Engelman said she likes the single-use Original Witch Hazel Refreshingly Clean Towelettes from Dickinson’s, or you can simply saturate a cotton ball with witch hazel and apply to your skin.
All three experts agreed that NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can help with your pain management as long as you aren’t allergic or can’t take them for another medical reason. The over-the-counter pain relievers ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin (Excedrin), and naproxen (Aleve) can help minimize inflammation and pain, Dr. Engelman said.
Karp further explained, “NSAIDs help by blocking an enzyme that is required for the synthesis of prostaglandins, which contribute to inflammation and pain.” So take the recommended dose on the bottle as needed and get some relief from the pain and swelling.
11Silk pajamas and sheets
Sometimes you can make it through your day without the sunburn truly bothering you. But when you go to lie down for the night, you’re in agony. For bedtime, Dr. Engelman recommended looking into a linen and PJ adjustment. “The softer the sheets, like silk, the less friction on the burn,” she said. “The bottom line is any fabric that helps reduce the strain on the skin is beneficial, i.e. silk pajamas.” She also said that turning on a fan will help keep you cool during the night.
During the day, tight clothes like bra straps and pants cinched with a belt can be brutal. Karp said to avoid tight clothes since “inflammation will make that super uncomfortable and skin needs to breathe.” So go as flowy as possible with your wardrobe and—if you’re able—maybe skip the bra.
Along the same lines, Karp also noted that there are certain clothing materials that can help you avoid a second sunburn (yes, that’s a thing). Wearing synthetic fibers or ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) clothing and just simply staying inside will help you skip a second burn.
This may seem obvious, but never underestimate the power of moisturizer. “After a cool shower, pat dry and immediately moisturize to lock in the moisture to your skin. Transdermal water loss increases when we have a compromised skin barrier,” Karp said.
However, not all moisturizers are created equal. Karp said to avoid the following when treating sunburn:
- Any AHA or BHA acids
- Alcohol or anything super drying
- Trying new products
- Occlusive products like petroleum (Vaseline) that trap the heat
Another thing to skip when you have a sunburn is makeup. While you may feel the need to cover up your red skin, Dr. Marmur said, “Avoid using makeup to cover up the burn because you need to let your skin breathe during the healing process. Adding possible dirty brushes or sponges into the mix can cause the condition to get worse.” Dr. Engelman said to especially not use any makeup that contains glitter or mica.
And while the urge to peel your skin may occur, do not use harsh cleansers, toners, or exfoliators. When it comes to exfoliators, Dr. Engelman said to avoid chemical ones like glycolic peels as well as physical ones like a Clarisonic brush.
At the end of the day (when that sunburn-causing sun is finally down), you should protect your skin against sunburn. Because while it may seem like just a temporary inconvenience, the Skin Cancer Foundation says sunburn can lead to long-lasting skin damage. “Use that good old sunscreen. Always apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outside and don’t forget to reapply every 1-2 hours throughout the day,” Dr. Marmur said.
But sometimes sunscreen just isn’t enough. “Even if you stay in the sun and constantly reapply sunscreen, you still can get burnt,” Karp added. “Make sure to limit hours spent in the direct sun, especially during peak hours of sun, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Also, in addition to diligent reapplication of SPF, there are many brands of sun protective clothing (UPF factor), such as Coolibar, Ultracor, and even some Lululemon pieces. Wear a hat, use an umbrella, and keep cool.”
So stay skin-safe this summer and year-round. But if you do end up with a sunburn, know you have plenty of alternative remedies to try out on your damaged skin.