13 Expert-Backed Sunburn Remedies to Soothe Your Pain and Speed Up Healing
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 by using sunscreen than have to worry about treating your skin later, but since the sun sometimes gets the best of us, we find ourselves turning to sunburn remedies more often than we wish to admit.
“Sunburns are intensive inflammation full of toxic free radicals that can be extra harmful to the skin,” explains board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon Ellen Marmur, M.D. of Marmur Medical. “Rapidly calming the skin and reducing inflammation is key for healing.”
When it comes to natural sunburn remedies, aloe vera reigns supreme. “[It] comes from a succulent plant and is an herbal medicine used by a variety of cultures for many years,” explains board-certified dermatologist, Sydney Karp, M.D., of Cybele Fishman Integrative Dermatology. “The clear gel from the plant is extremely cooling and soothing, making it perfect to use for acute sunburn.” Board-certified dermatologic surgeon Dendy Engelman, M.D. of the Shafer Clinic in Manhattan also notes the calming and anti-inflammatory properties of aloe. Plus, Dr. Marmur stated how the juice from the pulp of the plant contains natural hormones that can help with itchiness related to sunburn.
However, if you’re looking for alternative to aloe, we asked these three dermatologists to provide us with extra skincare tips to help heal your sunburn.
1. Water, 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.
2. Oatmeal and oil
Dr. Engelman also recommended applying oatmeal topically to the skin as it has soothing properties. She suggests mixing oatmeal with either olive or coconut oil, and then applying it 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 says. Since this remedy is a bit on the thick side, she suggested you leave it on for 10-15 minutes and then taking a shower to rinse it off.
3. Coconut oil
“Oil-based products are the best way to add moisture back into the skin,” says Dr. Engelman. “They are easily absorbed and penetrate deep into the skin,” she said. When it comes to sunburn, her top choice is coconut oil as it has antibacterial properties and will help to reduce itchiness and calm inflammation.
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Dr. Karp also recommends 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.”
4. Beer—but not for drinking
An old-school tip from Dr. Marmur is to apply beer to the sunburn. She says beer “contains niacin, proteins, vitamins, and antioxidants, which are soothing,” but advises against using diet or lite beers.
5. Cut back on drinking alcohol
Dr. Marmur says it’s important to hydrate with water—not alcohol—when you have a sunburn, especially since drinking 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,” Dr. Karp says.
However, note that drinking water won’t speed up your sunburn recovery. “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 says.
“Drinking water doesn’t necessarily help with the sunburn, but it does help to keep the skin from being dehydrated,” Dr. Marmur furthers. As both she and Dr. Karp explain, sunburn takes water away from your body by drawing the fluid to your skin’s surface. “In rare cases of very bad sunburns, people lose water from their damaged skin barrier and can escalate into sunstroke,” Dr. Marmur adds.
6. Topical steroids
Both Dr. Engelman and Dr. Karp recommended using a topical steroid if you want something a little more pharmaceutical. Dr. Karp said that over-the-counter corticosteroids help with inflammation, itching, and redness, and Dr. Engelman says they will help your skin recover more quickly.
7. Arnica montana pills
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Dr. Marmur says that Arnica montana reduces redness and excessive heat, and “also helps reduce bruising, sunburns, and inflammation, and speeds healing.” However, she recommends you take it in pill form instead of applying arnica topically as “arnica gels can be irritating to delicate skin due to the high content of rubbing alcohol.”
8. Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar has been touted as a miraculous cure-all for skin care and digestive health, and Dr. Engelman says it can help with sunburn as well. “If your whole body is burned, try an apple cider vinegar bath. After soaking for 10 minutes, it will have helped restore your skin’s pH levels, and your skin will feel cool and soothed,” she says. “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, she says to mix half a cup of apple cider vinegar and four cups water. “Douse a washcloth with the solution, and apply to sunburned skin,” she recommends.
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However, if you have super-sensitive skin or have an extreme sunburn, you may want to skip this trick. Dr. Marmur notes that apple cider vinegar could be “too intense for sunburnt skin due to chemistry.” There have been cases of chemical burns from the topical application of ACV, so speak with your doctor or try patch-testing it before soaking your whole body in its solution.
9. Witch hazel
“Witch hazel has anti-inflammatory and astringent properties, which make it great for itches and irritations,” says Dr. Engelman. “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, try a hydrating and alcohol-free formula to nourish the skin and prevent it from drying out.
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10. Oral NSAIDs
All three experts agree 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 says.
“NSAIDs help by blocking an enzyme that is required for the synthesis of prostaglandins, which contribute to inflammation and pain,” explains Dr. Karp. So, take the recommended dose on the bottle as needed and get some relief from the pain and swelling.
11. Silk pajamas and sheets
If your sunburn is causing agony when you go to lie down for the night, Dr. Engelman recommends looking into a linen and PJ adjustment. “The softer the sheets, like silk, the less friction on the burn,” she explains. “The bottom line is any fabric that helps reduce the strain on the skin is beneficial.”
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12. Loose clothing
During the day, tight clothes like bra straps and pants cinched with a belt can be brutal. Dr. Karp says to avoid tight clothes as “inflammation will make that super uncomfortable and skin needs to breathe.” So, go as flowy as possible.
Along the same lines, she 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,” Dr. Karp explains. However, she says to avoid moisturizers with the following ingredients as they could exacerbate sunburn-related pain.
- AHAs or BHAs
- Occlusive products such as petroleum (Vaseline) that trap heat
Lastly, avoid peeling your skin and wearing makeup while healing a sunburn. Dr. Marmur recommends avoiding makeup to let your skin breathe during the healing process, and Dr. Engelman says to avoid chemical and physical exfoliants to prevent causing further irritation.
At the end of the day, you should protect your skin against sunburn. While it may seem like a temporary inconvenience, the Skin Cancer Foundation says sunburn can lead to long-lasting skin damage. “Use that good old sunscreen, and always apply it at least 15 minutes before going outside and don’t forget to reapply every one-two hours throughout the day,” Dr. Marmur pleads