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While it’s important to protect your skin from the sun year-round (even if you’re inside), it’s especially important during summer, when UV rays are stronger and you’re more likely to be soaking them in. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about one out of every three Americans reports getting sunburned each year. Studies also show that a history of sunburns — especially blistering (also known as second degree) sunburns — can increase your risk for skin cancers later in life . Wearing (and reapplying) sunscreen at any age, as well as investing in UPF clothing and hats is crucial to keeping your skin healthy and your summer fun.
Despite our best efforts, sunburns happen from time to time, and they can be very uncomfortable. We spoke to doctors about how to treat a sunburn and what you should look for in over-the-counter products that provide relief, as well as how to know if you should seek further medical treatment.
Best products for treating sunburns
We consulted dermatologists about the best over-the-counter ways to treat sunburns, from a mild pink glow to a blistering red burn. Below, our recommendations on how to soothe the itch, and direct recommendations from experts on how to fight any pain after a day in the sun.
Best products for dry, itchy sunburns
All the experts we spoke to recommended applying aloe vera gel to sunburns. It’s known for its cooling and soothing effects, and also moisturizes skin.
Dr. Mary Stevenson, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor at NYU Langone Health’s Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology, recommended following aloe vera with this heavier, aloe-based Cetaphil cream. In general, Stevenson recommends looking for “creams” while browsing the aisles rather than products sold as “lotions.” Creams, which are typically sold in a pot, are thicker and more moisturizing than lotions (which are usually sold in a bottle with a pump).
According to Dr. Michele Farber, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group, the best thing for a sunburn “aside from water” is “a plain, unscented moisturizer.” She said that, especially for peeling sunburns, it’s important to help your skin repair itself, and applying moisturizer is one way you can do so. Stevenson agreed that mild, unscented moisturizers are best, and this one from CeraVe is fragrance-free.
Hydrocortisone creams help calm itching and irritation. Farber said over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment, like Cortizone 10 cream, is a good place to start, but prescription steroids may be necessary for more severe burns — you should consult your doctor about those.
Cold compresses can relieve inflammation that results from sunburns, Farber said. This one from Ace is surrounded by a touch fabric exterior, so you can apply the compress directly to skin without wrapping it in a towel first. The compress is designed to be flexible to contour to multiple body parts, too.
Best products for blistered sunburns
Farber said to avoid bandaids and stick to moisturizers if your sunburn is just red and itchy. But if your sunburn takes a turn for the worst and blisters, moist dressings like hydrocolloid bandages can promote healing. These bandages have a water-resistant seal and can be worn for up to seven days after application.
If your sunburn starts to blister, moist dressings like these burn pads can help soothe and cool your skin and provide a barrier that keeps the area clean and moisturized, says Farber.
Aquaphor and Vaseline have occlusive properties, according to Farber, meaning they help seal water into a disrupted skin barrier. If blisters open up into skin erosions, Cameron said both products can be applied to help prevent a secondary skin infection.
What is a sunburn and why are they dangerous?
A sunburn “is a sign that your skin has excessive UV radiation,” said Dr. Michael C. Camerson, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. Different degrees of sunburns are determined by the depth of damage to the skin. “A first-degree sunburn affects the top layers of the skin and usually is red, warm and swollen,” Farber said. “Second degree burns involve deeper layers of the skin and blistering.”
The inflammatory response to UV exposure occurs because UV radiation damages the DNA inside skin cells, thus leading to a sunburn and sometimes pigment formation (a tan), Stevenson explained. “It’s your body trying to defend itself,” she said. “Everyone’s skin type is different, but if you’re getting color or burning, you are getting UV damage.”
Dr. Dina Strachan, a board-certified dermatologist at Aglow Dermatology, said a sunburn can range from a mild skin redness, tenderness and blistering to experiencing a fever, chills or nausea. A sunburn can be dangerous because of these systemic symptoms — for example, extensive blistering and fluid loss can lead to dehydration and require IV hydration, Strachan said.
According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, five or more sunburns more than doubles your risk of developing potentially deadly melanoma, and UV damage can occur even when there is no obvious sunburn. Just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life.
How to treat a sunburn: What to use and what to avoid
Cameron said that how you treat your sunburn depends on whether or not there is blistering and signs of a secondary infection like pus or drainage or a systemic response such as a fever or chills. Generally, Farber said it’s best to apply a thick moisturizer to sunburns, hydrate and take ibuprofen as needed. She recommended aloe vera and cold baths to calm irritated, sunburned skin. But she said deeper burns can require more aggressive treatment or even a doctor’s visit.
Farber does not recommend treating sunburns with apple cider vinegar and witch hazel — two popular at-home remedies — as they can irritate sunburned skin. Additionally, all the experts we spoke to said you should not pop blisters or pull at peeling and flakey skin.