Sometimes, no matter how many precautions you take for sun protection (slathering on the sunscreen, reapplying diligently, etc.), a sunburn will still creep up on you. It might be because you missed a spot, you didn't reapply within a certain time frame, or the sunscreen you used wasn't as water- or sweat-resistant as you thought.
Whatever the case, when you do get a sunburn, it's important to treat it. By taking care of it, you can ease any discomfort and speed up the healing process. And if you've ever had an angry sunburn, you know how uncomfortable and painful it can be, so the faster your skin feels back to normal, the better, right? "A sunburn is at the very least a first-degree burn, so if you notice a sunburn and are still outside in the sun, immediately cover any exposed skin and reapply your broad-spectrum sunscreen," says Jaimie DeRosa, MD, double board-certified plastic surgeon and founder and lead facial plastic surgeon of DeRosa Center Plastic Surgery & Med Spa.
And if you just got home and are ready to treat the sunburn, take a look below at the tips and recommendations for the best sunburn relief products.
How to Treat a Sunburn
First, get out of the sun. "Once you notice a sunburn, you should immediately avoid further sun exposure and start cooling the sunburn down," explains dermatological nurse and celebrity aesthetician Natalie Aguilar. "The first 24 hours are critical to how a sunburn heals. Pain, discoloration, damage, and length of healing can all be minimized if raw, sunburnt skin is nursed properly at home."
To cool your sunburn, board-certified dermatologist Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD, FAAD, owner of Vibrant Dermatology and SkinBar MD, recommends taking frequent cool showers or baths. "Submersing the skin in cool water will help to cool the skin quickly and stop the damage that is occurring," she explains. "A gentle hydrating cleanser should be used to help restore the skin's impaired moisture barrier. After this, the skin should be pat dry, leaving some moisture on the skin, and then a hydrating moisturizer with ceramides should be applied to the skin." You can also apply cold compresses or towels soaked in cold water to cool your skin down.
You can also take an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen to help with redness and pain, Heather D. Rogers, MD, FAAD, dermatologist, dermatologic surgeon, and founder and CEO of Doctor Rogers Restore, says. Don't forget to drink plenty of water, too, because sunburns can cause moisture loss. And you can make sure the skin heals faster by applying a hydrating ointment. "Studies show that damaged skin heals faster when occluded with an ointment, allowing keratinocytes to divide and migrate in a moist environment," Rogers adds.
In the days after getting a sunburn, you should really try to stay out of the sun and continue to drink plenty of water. In the days following a severe sunburn, sensitive skincare is essential," Imahiyerobo-Ip says. "It's important to continue to keep the skin well hydrated with gentle cleansers and moisturizers with humectants and ceramides to help repair the skin's moisture barrier. If you get blisters, it's important not to pop them. Blisters provide a protective covering to compromised skin. Popping them may increase the risk of infections and scarring."
And even though you might be tempted to pick at peeling skin, DeRosa says you should only remove it if it's hanging off your body—if you can't cut that dead skin off with a scissor, leave it be.
Ingredients to Prioritize in Sunburn Relief Products
Humectants are key for relief. They're products that help draw water to the skin. "Humectants include glycerin and hyaluronic acid," Imahiyerobo-Ip says. Soy can be helpful because it has both moisturizing and anti-inflammatory effects. And aloe vera, which is most commonly used post-sunburn, has anti-inflammatory and cooling benefits.
Oatmeal can also be a skin soother. Aguilar recommends using an oatmeal paste: blending dry oats in a blender and adding water or chamomile tea. You can place the paste in a fridge and apply as a mask two to three times. a day. "Oatmeal is beneficial to sunburns because it is rich in beta-glucan, which provides the skin with deep hydration, bacteria-fighting properties, and the most magical process of recruiting immune cells to repair, soothe, and protect our skin's barrier," Aguilar explains.
Keeping the skin moisturized is just so important. "If the skin is intact, use a supportive moisturizer that will hydrate and heal the dried-out, sunburnt skin without causing more irritation," Rogers says. "Look for products containing squalene, shea butter, ceramides, Centella Asiatica, and glycerin. Be aware that many products on the market do not help and often further harm the skin. Once the skin is damaged, the barrier is not intact, and it will absorb more of whatever you put on it, making it more susceptible to irritation, so you have to be selective. Only use products that are safe for sensitive skin and/or certified by the National Eczema Association."
Pretty much every expert we spoke to said you should keep a sunburn relief product on hand, especially before a vacation or right before summer. Since the 24 hours following a sunburn are critical to its healing, it will be easy if you have easy access to these products. Plus, Aguilar says that some sunburn relief products are also helpful after waxing, after getting bug bites, while gardening, or even if you just want to cool your skin down after being outside.
Imahiyerobo-Ip suggests looking for things that are meant for sensitive skin and that are gentle and hydrating since your skin will be ultra-sensitive. She recommends avoiding harsh fragrances, exfoliants, vitamin C, and retinol, which can be irritating, while your skin is healing.
When it comes to application, you'll want to apply some products twice daily for up to two weeks or however long it takes for the skin to heal. Of course, it depends on the type of product and what it's supposed to do to the skin. "For example, apply a physical broad-spectrum sunscreen at least every two hours when exposed to the sun," DeRosa says. "A moisturizer may be applied twice daily. However, you may find that your dehydrated, burned skin is 'asking' for reapplication more often, so certainly reapply if your skin is feeling dry or tight."
This balm is helpful for blisters, according to Rogers. "The Restore Healing Balm is a plant-based ointment made with castor-seed oil shown to inhibit inflammation and glycerin, which pulls water to the damaged skin," she explains. "It is also hypoallergenic and speeds healing without petroleum."
"One of the products I carry at home and at my office is Babo's After Sun Gel, a non-sticky, cooling, and quick-absorbing gel with green tea, witch hazel, arnica, and eucalyptus oil. These ingredients are all soothing, hydrating, and most importantly, cooling," says Aguilar.
This is Imahiyerobo-Ip's favorite gentle cleanser. "[It] contains moisturizers and humectants like glycerin, soy, and hyaluronic acid in a creamy lotion cleanser to rehydrate the skin and repair the skin's moisture barrier," she says.
Rogers also recommends this body cream for first-degree burns. It's formulated to provide intense hydration and restore the skin barrier. Ingredients include moisturizing plant oils, free fatty acids, ceramides, and antioxidants.
This lotion will feel so cooling and refreshing on sunburned skin. It contains organic aloe vera to help the skin retain moisture, organic rosemary extract, and lavender, sunflower, and cedarwood oils, which are rich in antioxidants and vitamins.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be used in the place of advice of your physician or other medical professionals. You should always consult with your doctor or healthcare provider first with any health-related questions. See our full health disclaimer here.