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Treatments for Sunburn + Relief & Prevention

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Sunburn is your body's reaction to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Too much sun causes the top layer of your skin to release chemicals that cause your blood vessels to expand and leak fluids, causing inflammation, pain, and redness. Without protection, UV radiation (both UVA and UVB) will immediately start to penetrate deep into the layers of your skin and damage the skin's cells.

Despite our care, it's likely we will still experience sunburn while we go about our daily activities. That's why we need to know how to relieve mild cases, treat more severe cases, know how to prevent it, and when we should see a doctor. 

How to tell if your skin is sunburnt

Skin turns red within two to six hours of being burnt and will continue to develop for the next 24 to 72 hours. Sunburned skin may also start to peel as it heals. Peeling occurs when damaged skin cells self-destruct and peel off in tatty sheets. This is the body's way of getting rid of damaged skin cells that have the potential to develop into cancers.

5 tips for relieving mild sunburn

woman drinking water

In mild cases, most sunburns will heal on their own within a few days. However, if your skin is feeling hot, painful, or itchy, here are some ways to help it get better sooner.    

1. Get out of the sun

It may seem obvious, but as soon as you notice the signs of sunburn, it's time to move to the shade or indoors. What might appear as a light pinkish tinge during the day can progress to severe sunburn within hours. 

2. Have a cool shower or bath

Having a cool bath or a cool shower is an effective way to cool and rehydrate the skin. But whatever you do, don’t make it hot. The water temperature needs to be cool to lukewarm. Gently pat yourself dry and apply moisturiser immediately after to lock in moisture.  

3. Let your skin heal in peace

Treat peeling skin gently. Don’t peel off the dead skin and leave blisters alone to heal naturally. Skin blisters help you to avoid infection and popping them can cause permanent scarring. 

4. Drink, drink and drink!

Sunburn not only dries out the skin, it dries out your whole body. Drink extra water to avoid dehydration that often comes with skin damage from sun exposure. 

Foods, especially fruits with high concentrations of water, will rehydrate you after a sunburn. Watermelon, in particular, contains a high concentration of water. Sipping on juice or coconut water can also help you to rehydrate. 

5. Avoid further sun exposure during the skin's healing process

As well as getting out of the sun immediately when you begin to feel your sun being burnt, stay out of direct sun until your skin has completely healed.  

Your burnt skin will be more sensitive to UV rays when it is already burnt, so wear tightly woven fabrics that cover your skin, a hat, SPF-protected sunglasses and SPF 30+ sunscreen on a daily basis.

4 tips for treating more severe cases of sunburn

woman in the sun with a sunburnt shoulder

A case of severe sunburn will cause skin to feel hot and painful. Soothe your skin and relieve itching with these tips to treat sunburn.  

1. Take anti-inflammatory medication 

Aspirin or ibuprofen will help ease pain and swelling, giving your skin a chance to heal.

2. Use a medicated cream

You can buy ointments and cream to soothe pain and itchiness. Avoid products that contain petroleum (which will trap heat within the skin) and Benzocaine or Lidocaine (both of which can irritate the skin). For this reason, you should also avoid using these on young children. 

3. Apply cool compresses

Cold compresses are one of the quickest and easiest ways to ease sunburn pain. Use a damp towel draped over the affected skin will keep it cool and hydrated. Never apply ice directly to your skin.  

4. Treat your sunburnt skin with one of the home remedies listed below

Aloe vera lotion is well known as a sunburn treatment. Lather the affected area with the cool lotion to reduce discomfort. Aloe vera gels and sprays are also effective. Dampen your skin with cool water before applying in order to lock in moisture and reduce dryness.

Read on to see which other things from your pantry can be used to treat sunburn. 

5 home remedies and natural sunburn treatments

1. You can buy aloe vera lotion from chemists or make your own using aloe vera from your garden. Aloe vera will reduce redness and help your sunburn to heal quicker.  

2. Manuka honey is antibacterial and draws moisture to the skin. Apply a thin layer to the skin and leave for 30 minutes. It may help stop your skin from peeling and blistering.   

3. If your sunburn is peeling, you can add baking soda to a cool bath or mix with a little water to form a paste which can then be applied to the skin to calm inflammation and alleviate itching. Leave on for a few minutes before rinsing off under a cool shower.     

4. Oatmeal is commonly used on eczema-prone skin, but it can also be used to soothe sunburn. Mix with coconut oil, which also has antibacterial properties, or olive oil, and let it sit on the skin for several minutes before rinsing off.

5. Add cold milk to cold compresses. Dip a clean cloth in milk and let it sit on the skin for 10–15 minutes. Milk contains lactic acid, which acts as a gentle exfoliant. There’s no need to rinse it off. The thin protein layer will dry on the skin, sealing in moisture and helping your skin to heal faster.      

When to see a doctor for sunburn

The general rule is that if blisters cover more than 20% of the burnt area, seek medical attention. However, if you are suffering from fevers or chills, you should see a doctor immediately. Too much sun can cause dehydration, which can also be dangerous.   

Tips to prevent sunburnt skin

The best way to avoid damaging your skin is to avoid exposure to UV radiation using sun protection measures, such as protective clothing and sunscreen. Even then, sunburn protection isn’t guaranteed. Combining these measures is your best bet when it comes to avoiding sunburn.  

While sunburn heals, it causes your skin cells to become damaged and increases your risk of skin cancers later in life. Here are some sun safety measures to help you prevent sunburn and keep your skin healthy.  

  • Check the UV index before you head outside and avoid the sun during the hottest parts of the day. 
  • Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30+.
  • Use sun protective clothing when outside, including a hat and sunglasses. Investing in gloves for driving and wearing long-sleeves and pants while doing activities such as gardening will also help with sunburn prevention. 

Why it's important to avoid getting sunburnt

Repeated sunburn increases your risk of developing melanoma. All types of sunburn, whether serious or mild, can cause permanent and irreversible skin damage, and further sunburn only increases your risk of skin cancer.

If you are severely sunburned or you are experiencing blistering, headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or severe pain, you should seek immediate hospital treatment.For more information on sunburn treatment, skin cancer prevention, or to book an appointment at a SunDoctors Skin Cancer Clinic, head online or call 13SKIN (137546) today.

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