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While it’s important to protect your skin against UV rays year-round (even inside), it’s especially important as temperatures heat up in the summer and we spend more time outside under the sun. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about one out of every three Americans reports getting sunburned each year. Dr. Michael C. Cameron, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, explained that “a sunburn is a sign that your skin has received excessive UV radiation,” and data has shown that a history of sunburns — especially blistering (also known as second degree) sunburns — can potentially increase your risk for skin cancers later in life. This underscores the importance of wearing (and reapplying) sunscreen at any age, as well as investing in UPF clothing and hats.
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
Cameron said aloe vera and moisturizer help soothe sunburns. This aloe moisturizer also comes in a pot — and according to Dr. Mary Stevenson, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor at NYU Langone Health’s Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology, this is more moisturizing than creams that come in a pump as they’re usually thicker.
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 creams are best, and this one from CeraVe is fragrance-free.
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.
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.
Farber said moist dressings like hydrocolloid bandages can promote healing if you get sunburned. These bandages have a water-resistant seal and can be worn for up to seven days after application.
Blisters can be treated with moist dressings, according to Farber. They provide a barrier that keeps skin clean and moisturized. These burn pads won’t stick to skin and they work to soothe and cool burned areas.
You can take Advil, a brand name for ibuprofen, as needed to help reduce swelling, redness and pain, according to Cameron. Motrin is another brand name for ibuprofen you can try, and Amazon, CVS, Walgreens and other retailers also sell their own name-brand ibuprofen.
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.
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.
What is a sunburn and why are they dangerous?
According to Farber, a sunburn is an inflammatory reaction in the top layer of skin in response to UV exposure. There are different degrees of sunburns, which is based on 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.”
According to Stevenson, 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). “It’s your body trying to defend itself,” Stevenson 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.
In the long term, sunburns also increase one’s risk for skin cancer, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin damage builds over time, so the more you burn, the greater your risk of skin cancer. The Skin Cancer Foundation states that five or more sunburns — regardless of when they occur — more than doubles your risk of developing potentially deadly melanoma, and UV damage can occur even when there is no obvious sunburn. The foundation also states that oneblisteringsunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life.
How to treat a sunburn: What do 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.
When does a sunburn warrant a doctor’s visit?
According to Strachan, you should see a doctor about your sunburn if you are extremely uncomfortable or if an extensive portion of your body is burned. She also said extensive blistering and systemic symptoms like a fever, chills and nausea warrant medical attention. Furthermore, Cameron added that you should see your doctor if your sunburn leads to an altered mental status like confusion, or if there are signs of a secondary skin infection, including pus and drainage.
How to prevent sunburns
Wearing — and consistently reapplying —sunscreen is key to preventing sunburns, Farber said. “Any sunscreen that you’ll wear is best, as long as it’s broad-spectrum and at least SPF 30,” she noted. Farber recommended trying different sunscreen formulations to figure out which you prefer, like tinted sunscreen, spray sunscreen, mineral sunscreen and more. Wearing wide-brimmed hats and sun-protective clothing is also helpful, and she mentioned that you should try to avoid the sun during the hours when it’s strongest: 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Farber also suggested getting regular skin checks to promote early detection of possible skin cancer, especially if you burn frequently.
Finally, Strachan said medications such as non-steroidal aromatase inhibitors (NSAIs) and tetracyclines increase one’s risk of sunburn, so be especially diligent about applying sunscreen and taking other sun damage prevention measures if you use these products.