Ahhh, summer! Finally, we can ditch the winter woolies and enjoy the sensation of warm sun on skin. Sunshine helps our bodies make vitamin D, which is essential to health. But a little sun exposure goes a long way. According to the National Institutes of Health:
“Ten to 15 minutes of sunshine three times weekly is enough to produce the body’s requirement of vitamin D. The sun needs to shine on the skin of your face, arms, back or legs (without sunscreen). Because exposure to sunlight is a risk for skin cancer, you should use sunscreen after a few minutes in the sun.”
Though we all know better, at some point we still get sunburned — either because we wait until feeling the heat of a burn before taking precautions or because we forget to reapply sunblock every two hours.
When that happens, act quickly, New York City dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe advises in Men’s Journal:
“Although prevention is best, if you quickly treat a sunburn, you might have a shot at minimizing the damage done to the cells,” Bowe says. “You want to help the skin repair itself as quickly as possible.”
First, move into the shade or go indoors. If you are stuck — out on the water, for example — cover up. Good to know: Sunblock takes at least 20 minutes to start working.
If you have blisters over more than 20 percent of your body, go to the hospital, said Dr. Robert Friedman, a dermatologist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, speaking to Men’s Journal.
Otherwise, treat pain and burning with these 23 remedies found in the kitchen, garden or medicine cabinet:
1. Pain relievers
Friedman suggests popping an ibuprofen — e.g. Advil or Motrin — which acts as an anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling and ease pain. If you also have a headache or mild chills, go with acetaminophen (Tylenol), he says.
2. Cool bath
Take a gentle bath in cool water to ease the burn. Avoid soap because it dries the skin and can make itching worse. You might want to avoid taking a shower because the spray may hurt tender skin.
“As soon as you get out of the bathtub or shower, gently pat yourself dry, but leave a little water on your skin. Then, apply a moisturizer to help trap the water in your skin. This will help ease the dryness,” advises the American Academy of Dermatology.
3. Cool compresses
If you can’t immerse yourself in cool water, do the next best thing: Soak clean towels in cool water and apply them to your burning skin. As the compresses warm, change them for cool ones. Do this on and off for a day or two until the pain and heat subside.
Burns draw fluid to the skin’s surface and away from the rest of the body, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation:
It’s important to rehydrate by drinking extra liquids, including water and sports drinks that help to replenish electrolytes, immediately and while your skin heals.
Watch for signs of dehydration, including a dry mouth, thirst, reduced urination, headache, nausea, dizziness and sleepiness — and see the doctor if they become severe.
5. Infection prevention
Avoid scratching your skin or popping blisters, as opening skin wounds increases the chance of infection. Prevention Magazine suggests applying an over-the-counter antibacterial ointment if you have an infection or are concerned that an infection could take hold.
6. Aloe vera
“A review of four experimental studies found that aloe vera could reduce the healing time of burns by about nine days, compared with conventional medication,” according to environmental news site EcoWatch.
Stock your medicine cabinet with a lotion rich in aloe vera. Or grow the plant in your garden or as a houseplant: Just break off a leaf and apply the healing juice directly to a burn when needed.
7. Fat-free milk
Milk compresses are an odd-sounding remedy, but it is widely recommended. Don’t use just any milk. It must be fat-free milk, according to Prevention Magazine, which shares this recipe:
Mix 1 cup fat-free milk with 4 cups water, then add a few ice cubes. Apply compresses for 15 to 20 minutes; repeat every 2 to 4 hours.
Pouring a cup of cider vinegar into your cool bath water will promote healing by balancing the pH of your sunburned skin, according to MedicineNet.
9. Black tea
Tea bags — black tea, especially — are a favorite home remedy for sunburn. There doesn’t appear to be much scientific basis for it, but it can’t hurt. In the same vein, beauty magazines occasionally recommend calming puffy eyelids by resting with a poultice of damp tea bags on your lids. Used tea bags are perfect for this. Apply the damp tea bags to the worst areas of sunburn.
10. Potato juice
The juice of a raw potato can be used to treat sunburn. Rub slices of potato onto burned skin or grate raw potato, gather it in clean cheesecloth or a soft clean rag and apply the poultice directly to your skin. WebMD says:
A chemical in the potato peel might also prevent bacteria from attaching to cells. Potatoes are a source of vitamin C, iron, riboflavin and carbohydrates.
Chamomile is famous for its soothing properties. There’s no scientific evidence that it helps calm burned skin, but it is popular as a folk remedy. Soak a cloth in cool chamomile tea and apply it to your skin.
There are a couple of ways to use cornstarch to help with sunburn. You can make a paste: Add a few drops of water to some cornstarch, mix and apply it to the sunburned skin. Also, sprinkle sheets with cornstarch so interaction with the sheets feels smoother and less painful to burned skin.
13. Baking soda
Baking soda neutralizes acids, which is why it is often used to soothe babies’ diaper rash. Pour a half-cup to a cup of baking soda in your cool bath. Or, make a paste by mixing baking soda with a few drops of water. Apply it to itchy skin.
Prevention Magazine says:
Instead of towelling off, let the (baking soda bath solution) dry on your skin. It is completely nontoxic, and it will soothe the pain.
Oatmeal — used in a bath or in compresses — is a time-honored remedy for the itching of sunburn. LiveStrong explains how to make a paste by grinding oatmeal flakes in a blender or food processor and mixing with milk and honey. Apply the paste to burned skin.
Or follow Prevention Magazine’s method: Put dry oatmeal into cheesecloth or gauze and run cool water through it, saving the liquid. Remove the oatmeal and use the liquid to soak the cloth compresses. Apply them every two to four hours.
You can get the help of oatmeal off the pharmacy shelf as well: Colloidal oatmeal is a refined oatmeal extract made by boiling ground oats. Aveeno is one company that uses colloidal oatmeal in bath products to soothe irritated skin.
Common yarrow, a plant found in many gardens and along roadsides, has healing properties, according to Fox News:
If you have a sunburn, make a big pot of yarrow tea and add it to a warm or cool bath. The infusion will provide relief.
Look for dried yarrow sold in bulk at health food stores and spice shops.
16. Vitamin E
It’s possible that skin damage from a sunburn may be reduced by taking vitamin C and applying vitamin E oil directly on your skin or swallowing capsules. Some moisturizers contain both vitamins.
“Combined vitamins C and E reduce the sunburn reaction, which might indicate a consequent reduced risk for later sequelae of UV-induced skin damage,” write the authors of a research study published by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Sunburn dries skin making it irritated, so use lots of moisturizing cream or lotion. Avoid scented products as fragrance may further irritate damaged skin. Chilling moisturizer in the refrigerator can make it feel more soothing.
The cooling juices of the cucumber are commonly used to soothe inflamed skin. Spas, for example, apply cut slices to patrons’ eyelids for a soothing treatment. For sunburn, cut lengthwise slices to give you more surface area to apply directly to sunburned areas. Chilling the cuke just slightly makes it feel even better on burned skin.
Plantain is a starchy fruit belonging to the banana family. It’s eaten baked or fried in the Caribbean and West Africa, where it is grown. “The late Alabama folk herbalist Tommie Bass used plantain for sunburn, stings, poison ivy and poison oak,” writes botanist James A. Duke in “The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases.” Presumably you apply the fruit — or a poultice of mashed fruit — to sunburned skin. Duke doesn’t say how to use it.
Yes, eggplant! It has a folk reputation as a sunburn treatment, Duke writes. He suggests mashing it (cooking would make that easier) and applying it to the skin.
21. Witch hazel
Witch hazel is another astringent that has been “shown to have long-lasting anti-inflammatory relief,” Prevention Magazine says. You can use it topically for temporary relief of itching and pain.
The calendula flower is a member of the marigold family that is applied to skin “to reduce pain and swelling (inflammation) and to treat poorly healing wounds and leg ulcers,” WebMD says. It is “loaded with anti-cancer lycopene,” according to Mother Earth News.
Calendula creams and gels are found in health food stores and drug stores. Writes Fox News:
The gels are more cooling, providing quick relief. Calendula relieves inflammation and helps to accelerate skin healing. Natural, safe, effective and inexpensive, calendula is another home medicine chest essential.
WebMD cautions, “[D]on’t confuse calendula with ornamental marigolds of the Tagets genus, which are commonly grown in vegetable gardens.” And it can cause miscarriage so avoid it by all means if you are pregnant or even if you are breastfeeding, WebMD says.
Lavender essential oil, found in health food stores and some drug stores, is commonly used for sunburn, Fox News writes, adding:
Rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, lavender essential oil reduces redness and swelling. The side effect? It makes you smell really good.
Avoid these ‘cures’
Stay away from first-aid sprays that contain lidocane or benzocaine. They’re meant to numb the skin or relieve pain but can cause an allergic reaction or irritate your burned skin, making the pain worse.
Applying ice to sunburned skin would seem to make sense, but don’t do it.
“Putting ice directly on a burn can cause further damage to the tissue,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Also, avoid using petroleum products (like petroleum jelly) on your skin because they trap the skin’s heat.
Instead, follow the AAD’s recommendation and dab over-the-counter low-dose hydrocortisone cream on skin that is particularly raw.
Remember, it’s far better to avoid getting sunburned in the first place. But on those occasions when you’ve overdone try some of these remedies to heal and alleviate the discomfort — and try to avoid overexposure going forward. Skin damage adds up over the years, so taking care of your skin is a lifelong project.
Share your favorite sunburn treatments with us, below or on our Facebook page.
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