Sunburn hurts your skin – in a number of ways that go well beyond the short-term discomfort, redness and swelling. Over-exposure to the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays that cause sunburn accelerates skin aging to cause wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots. Sunburn is also a leading cause in most cases of several types of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Sunburn is the body’s response to the damage UV radiation inflicts on the skin’s outermost layers. Exposure to UV light triggers the production of melanin, a pigment that gives your skin its color. Melanin also protects your skin from the sun’s rays. It works like natural sunscreen by darkening skin – when you get a suntan or sunburn, you are seeing melanin working to protect your body. Both tans and burns are signs of damage to skin cells.
Genetics determine how much melanin your body produces, which is why some people tan and others burn. In people whose bodies produce less melanin, prolonged, unprotected exposure to the sun can cause skin cells to become red, swollen and painful – the classic signs and symptoms of sunburn. Sunburn severity can range from mild discomfort and redness to painful blistering, depending on the amount of damage to skin cells. Symptoms can persist for several days, as damaged skin heals.
In most cases, you can treat sunburn at home. See a doctor if you have severe blistering over a large portion of your body, if you have a fever and chills, or if you feel woozy or confused. Never scratch or pop blisters, as this may cause an infection that requires the care of a doctor. Signs of infection include oozing pus and red streaks.
5 Ways to Treat Sunburns at Home
The actions you take immediately after you sunburn can improve symptoms and promote healing. For best results, initiate treatment as soon as you realize you have a sunburn.
1. Cool your skin right away
Hit a cold shower or jump into a cool, lake, pond or ocean to cool your skin. If you are outside, cover up and get out of the sun immediately. Once indoors, continue to cool the burn by applying cold compresses to the area. You can use ice to make a cold compress, but do not apply the ice directly to the sunburn. Take another cool shower or bath, but to avoid dry or irritated skin, do not stay in too long or use harsh soap.
2. Apply moisturizer while your skin is still damp
Damp skin absorbs moisturizer better than dry skin does. Moisturizer also “locks in” the water to keep your skin well hydrated. Slather on a gentle moisturizing lotion, but avoid oil- or petroleum- based ointments, as they can trap heat in to make the burns worse. Apply moisturizer often over the next few days to keep burned or peeling skin moist.
3. Reduce inflammation
If it is safe for you to take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen or naproxen), take a dose at the first sign of sunburn can help with inflammation and discomfort. Continue taking NSAIDs as directed on the label until the burn feels better.
Creams and topical remedies may help reduce uncomfortable inflammation. Applying an over-the-counter cream containing 1 percent cortisone cream to the affected area for a few days can help calm swelling and redness. Aloe vera can also provide soothing relief. Cool compresses can continue to ease discomfort.
4. Replenish fluids
The body responds to sunburn by dilating blood vessels and bringing fluids to the surface of the skin. The fluids contain water and immune cells that help skin tissue heal, and widening blood vessels increases the amount of oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood delivered to the area to promote healing.
Drawing fluid to the skin’s surface can rob the rest of the body of the fluid it needs to function, though, and this can lead to general dehydration in the body that can slow down healing a sunburn. Since water is a major component of blood, dehydration also reduces the amount of blood reaching the sunburn. In other words, sunburn causes dehydration, which can slow down the healing of sunburn.
Drinking extra fluids, including water and sports drinks, can replenish the body’s fluids to reduce dehydration and speed healing. Sports drinks contain electrolytes, which do the important job of keeping the proper balance of water, both inside cells and outside cells. Maintaining this balance helps the body stay properly hydrated and functioning well, which is essential while your body heals from sunburn.
5. Avoid irritating the skin further
Wear loose-fitting, soft, breathable clothing. Stay out of the sun entirely until your sunburn has healed completely. Reconsider wearing makeup, especially if it contains chemicals and irritants that can cause more inflammation of your skin.
While skin can heal from sunburn, some damage remains. Repeat sunburn puts you at a higher risk for skin cancer, for example, and causes premature aging. The best way to relieve sunburn and prevent the problems it causes is to avoid getting sunburn in the first place – stay out of the sun during the hottest time of day, sit in the shade, put on a wide-brimmed hat, and always wear sunscreen.
For more information on sunburn and tips to treat it, consult with your skin doctor. The dermatologists at Center for Dermatology & Laser Surgery are always glad to provide information on sunburn, treat your severe sunburn, or assess the potential for skin damage caused by sunburn.