How to Take Care of Sunburned Skin
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably experienced a sunburn at least once in your lifetime. Just one sunburn (even if it occurs in childhood) can increase your risk of long-term repercussions, including skin cancer.
You can see that sunburn must be taken seriously. When we say sunburn, that doesn’t just mean the classic signs of a severe sunburn, like lobster-red skin. Even skin turning slightly pink means you are experiencing a sunburn.
The best way to deal with potential sunburn is, of course, not to get one in the first place. You can do this by liberally applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or higher every day, rain or shine, to areas of your skin that might be exposed to sunlight. Doing this, in addition to using other sun protection methods (like wearing a hat and SPF-blocking clothing), can reduce your risk of developing cancer.
Of course, sometimes, if you’re outside longer than anticipated, forget to reapply your sunscreen, don’t apply a high enough SPF, or don’t apply enough sunscreen in the first place, you can wind up with a sunburn. Though that’s not ideal, there are steps you can take to reduce the impact on your skin.
What to Do If You Get a Sunburn
First, look for the signs of sunburn. The first and most obvious is that your skin changes color, in a range that can go from slightly pink to deep red, and can become warm to the touch. It’s critical to take the following steps as quickly as possible:
- Remove yourself from direct sunlight immediately; ideally, go indoors or to a completely shaded area. Drink plenty of hydrating fluids to avoid dehydration.
- Calm the skin over a few hours using cool, damp compresses or a bag of ice wrapped in a towel (never put ice directly on skin). This will help draw the heat from the skin and lessen redness.
- Carefully apply a thin, almost watery lotion, toner, or serum packed with a broad range of skin-repairing and soothing ingredients to the affected area. You’ll often see aloe vera recommended as a “fix-it-all” solution, but your skin needs a more robust mix of ingredients to improve quickly.
- Avoid direct contact with sunlight as your skin improves, taking care to wear lightweight yet SPF-rated sunlight-blocking clothing.
- Wear a sunscreen rated SPF 30 or higher to avoid any additional sun damage.
What Shouldn’t You Do?
In addition to what you should do to help your skin after a sunburn, there are some things you should not do to ensure you’re treating your skin the best way you can to soothe sun damage.
- Do not place ice directly onto your skin. The extreme cold can cause skin to become more aggravated and make the damage worse.
- Do not use creams that have fragrances or so-called “cooling” ingredients like menthol. They can cause skin to flare up more than it already is with the sunburn.
- Do not apply thick, occlusive balms, creams, or butters to skin. These products trap the heat in skin, increasing the damage.
When Should You See a Doctor?
If your skin turns pink, it’s damaging, but it’s not dangerous or life-threatening in the short term. Slightly redder sunburns can be taken care of at home; however, there are some circumstances where it’s necessary to seek the help of a medical professional. If you have any of the following symptoms, see a doctor immediately:
- Swelling of the affected area
- Intense and obvious blisters
- Feeling faint, dizzy, or nauseous.
It bears repeating: It is worth the time and effort it takes to avoid getting a sunburn or turning any shade of pink altogether so you don’t have to worry about dealing with trying to soothe your skin after you have a sunburn.
References for this information:
Health Reports, May 2017, pages 12–19
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, March 2017, pages S100–S109
About the Experts
Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:
The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!