You’ve been there: After a day (or even just a few hours) of fun in the sun, you head back inside, glance in the mirror, and realize you are beet red.
Physical discomfort and DayGlo complexion aside, getting a sunburn is bad news for your health. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, having just a few sunburns increases your risk of skin cancer—the most common type of cancer in the United States—by 80 percent, so it’s really, really important to avoid getting fried. Nevertheless, sometimes the sun’s rays catch us off guard, in which case it’s important to give your burnt skin some tender love and care to reduce discomfort and prevent any further damage. Consider this your expert guide to supporting singed skin.
What happens when you get a sunburn?
A sunburn is actually an inflammatory reaction that occurs when the outermost layers of our skin are damaged by the ultraviolet radiation of the sun. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, “prolonged unprotected sun exposure can cause skin cells to become red, swollen, and painful.” This response is more common in people who have less melanin, the pigment responsible for your skin tone that darkens the skin in response to sun exposure in order to protect it.
Sunburns can range in severity from slightly pink to painful and blistering—and all cause premature aging and increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
How to give your sunburnt skin some TLC
As soon as you notice signs that you’ve been overexposed to the sun, it’s important to take action to care for your skin.
1. Cool Off ASAP
If the damage is done, get out of the sun stat, according to University of Pittsburgh assistant professor and dermatologist Viktoriya Kazlouskaya, M.D., Ph.D. Seek shade or take a cool bath or shower for some instant relief.
2. Apply Moisture
Afterward, apply some emollients and aloe vera, Kazlouskaya suggests. “Emollients help to keep a moist environment on the surface of the skin to help it to heal,” she says. (Two examples: lanolin and mineral oil.) As for the aloe vera? A longtime natural go-to for sunburn, it’s unclear whether aloe actually expedites the skin’s healing process. However, the cooling effect sure does provide instant relief.
3. Consider OTC Topicals and Ibuprofen
According to Anya Stassiy, P.A., a physician assistant with over 15 years of experience in dermatology, aspirin can help with pain and swelling, which is why she recommends taking some within 12 hours of getting burned. It works by helping to stop the production of inflammatory chemicals caused by the UVA/UVB exposure, she says.
If the swelling is particularly painful, ibuprofen and topical over-the-counter cortisone (available in all pharmacies) can also help with the redness and pain thanks to their anti-inflammatory effects, she adds.
4. Reach for cool compresses
As you wait for the burn to heal, apply cool compresses to the sunburned areas when you can. “Cool compresses reduce the heat produced by the inflammatory process that is caused by UVA/UVB rays, thus aiding in pain relief,” Stassiy says. Just don’t apply ice or anything too cold directly to the skin, which is already fragile and working hard to repair itself. Doing so could cause an “ice burn,” which will cause more pain and swelling.
5. Keep the area protected
You’ll also want to be extra meticulous about applying sunscreen in the next following days and wearing protective clothing, such as loose, breathable pants or long-sleeved tops to avoid further irritation and burning, says Kazlouskaya.
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Though getting a sunburn is a major bummer when it’s beautiful outside or you’re on vacation, don’t put your health further at risk by spending more time in the sun, she warns. Stick to the shade and prioritize protection.
6. Stay hydrated
When you get burnt, fluids from your blood vessels and surrounding tissues are released to the skin’s surface, according to Kazlouskaya. To ensure you stay hydrated as your body heals, it’s important to pay attention to your thirst levels and make sure your urine is not concentrated or dark yellow. In addition to water, drinks that contain electrolytes (like coconut water) can help you hydrate. (You might also want to load up on water-rich foods.)
7. Resist the urge to pick
If you’re starting to blister, whatever you do, do not open or pick them, Kazlouskaya says. This could lead to an infection, which no one wants on top of a sunburn. Similarly, if your skin starts to peel as the sunburn fades, resist the urge to peel it yourself! Your skin is still very much in healing mode as it sheds damaged cells, so don’t disturb the process.
8. Consider following up with a dermatologist
While the redness, peeling, and swelling of a sunburn will fade, the damage to your skin will not, so consider checking in with a dermatologist. “I would advise scheduling a skin check a few months after the incident and monitoring for any new suspicious spots,” says Kazlouskaya. “Skin checks are usually recommended every year unless the patient has some other risk factors like previous skin cancers, numerous atypical moles, or family history of skin cancers, specifically melanoma.” In these cases, you may want to schedule more frequent skin checks.
9. Make sure you’re stocked on SPF to prevent future burns
Finally, invest in some quality sunscreen. “No matter if one has a sunburn or not, sunscreens should be applied in the morning,” Kazlouskaya says. If you’re heading outside, apply sunscreen to your exposed skin areas (don’t forget the ears!) and reapply every two hours, or more frequently if you’re swimming. Your future self will thank you.