Even the most stringent sunscreen users find themselves surprised by the power of the sun. UV rays don’t care about your intentions and whether you meant to reapply SPF. I’ve lived in Florida all my life and still come home from beach days with “no idea how I got so sunburnt.”
You know, I know, everybody knows that sunscreen is important. We know we should reapply it every two hours, we know we should avoid the sun when it’s at its most intense. But you’re still going to deal with a sunburn at some point, and when you do, it’s better to know how to heal a sunburn than to deny it ever happened.
This isn’t a free pass—sun damage is serious. And if the fact that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the time they’re 70 isn’t enough to convince you, maybe this will. It’s estimated that 80% of skin aging is due to the sun. All those wrinkles and that discoloration? Mostly totally preventable. So for anyone who’s skin care obsessed (and especially those who aren’t) sunscreen should be your most important product.
First, make sure you wear sunscreen. Every. Day. And reapply it, no matter how many poolside margaritas you’ve had. But when you find yourself red at the end of the day, treat your skin. HelloGiggles spoke with top dermatologists to find out MD-approved ways to heal a sunburn so you can minimize damage as much as possible.
Take a bath
Turning down the temperature and taking a cool bath will soothe your skin and decrease inflammation, but an extra ingredient can help even more. “If your whole body is burnt, 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,” said dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman. Plus, apple cider vinegar has soothing anti-inflammatory properties, while the acetic acid will gently slough off the top layer of dead skin cells.
Stay out of the sun
One sunburn and you’re done. Skin is extra sensitive after being burnt, and re-exposure will only make it worse. Wear protective clothing as much as possible, and keep applying sunscreen to exposed skin. Even as your skin heals and the redness fades, it needs to be protected. “These areas are more sensitive to sunlight and must be diligently protected for several weeks,” said Dr. David Lortscher, board-certified dermatologist, CEO, and founder of Curology.
Start taking ibuprofen within four to six hours of being sunburned to keep inflammation from getting worse, and continue to take as directed for another 48 hours. But be sure you’re taking ibuprofen (on a full stomach) rather than other pain relievers. “While Tylenol will help alleviate the pain associated with a burn, it does not have the same anti-inflammatory effect as ibuprofen,” said dermatologist and RealSelf contributor Dr. Joel Schlessinger. “When you take ibuprofen, you aren’t just addressing symptoms like redness and swelling, you are also helping to prevent long-term skin damage,” he added.
What you do now determines how healthy your skin will appear after it’s healed. Moisturizing your sunburn now can keep your skin from becoming too dry and forming lines and wrinkles. “Therefore, it’s important to treat the sunburn with products that have ingredients like vitamin E, which helps the skin heal,” said Dr. Engelman.
Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, dermatologist and clinical instructor at the University of Southern California, recommended ingredients like coconut oil and shea butter, or products with ceramides to repair the broken skin barrier. “If your skin can tolerate mild exfoliation at this point, look for lotions with hydroxy acids, like ammonium lactate to gently remove the scale,” she said.
Antioxidants neutralize the oxidative stress that can cause cell damage, so turn to them when your skin is in most need of repair. Vitamin C will most be most effective at the cellular level, said Dr. Engelman, and delivering those antioxidants in the form of serums allow the active ingredients to penetrate further. If you don’t want to use your expensive face serums all over your body, try mixing just a few drops in with your moisturizer.
Water is always important for healthy skin, but now is when your skin needs it the most. “Sunburn can draw fluid to the skin’s surface and away from other areas of the body, causing dehydration,” said Dr. Schlessinger. Stay hydrated by taking in lots of extra fluids, like water and sports drinks.
Don’t apply analgesics
Many of the derms we spoke with advised against applying -caine products—like lidocaine or benzocaine—even though they’re common ingredients in aftersun skin care products. While these are added to numb the skin and relieve pain, they are also notorious for irritating skin and causing allergic reactions. Stick to ibuprofen to combat sunburn pain instead.
There is one topical medicine dermatologists suggest for sunburns. “Apply a thin layer of hydrocortisone cream two to three times a day to reduce the redness and inflammation in the skin,” said Dr. Shainhouse. Hydrocortisone will also reduce the itch that’s associated with healing skin, and prevent you from irritating your skin further.
Don’t pop blisters
It’s tempting, but don’t do it. Those blisters are there to promote healing and prevent infection, and popping them could lead to scarring. Instead, keep them protected, and if your blisters are especially bad, you’ll need some professional help. Which brings me to my next point…
Go to the doctor
If you’ve experienced a severe sunburn and you’re developing blisters and other symptoms, you may need to see a doctor. “If blisters cover more than 20% of the body, seek a physician’s care as soon as possible. Likewise, if you experience sunburn accompanied by fever and chills, you should see a doctor immediately,” advised Dr. Schlessinger.
“Sunburned skin begins healing by itself within several days, but complete healing may take weeks,” said Dr. Lortscher. Your newly exposed skin is especially sensitive and vulnerable to the sun’s rays, so that means you’ll need to take care of your skin even when the redness has faded and it returns to normal. So chill out indoors for a while. Your body will thank you.