How to treat sunburn

Featured image: Harvard Health

The dangers of unlimited and unprotected exposure to the sun couldn’t be more well-known but it is easy to get caught out on a day when there is less direct sunlight and perhaps just glare combined with a strong breeze.

Even when the sun isn’t shining, up to 80% of the sun’s rays can penetrate cloud cover.  It’s also easy to forget to apply sunscreen to a part of the body that is exposed just because you are wearing different clothes.  Staying out in the sun for too long for the factor level of the sun cream you have applied is another oversight.  One way and another, it is actually pretty easy to get caught out and suffer sunburn which can end up being quite serious and very painful.

always use sunscreen

Always use sunscreen, especially on kinds – image source: Boston University Medical

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is an inflammatory reaction in the skin to ultraviolet or UV radiation damage to the skin’s outermost layers.  The skin contains a pigment called melanin which is what gives skin its color and acts as a defense mechanism against the sun’s rays.  Genetics determines how much melanin each person has in their skin which is why some people burn easily whilst others tan.

what does sunburn look like?

What does sunburn look like? Image source: Wikipedia

Irrespective of the amount of melanin your skin contains, anyone, can easily become sunburnt.  The skin cells become red, swollen, and later, painful. This is what is classified as sunburn.

Unless sunburn is severe, it can largely be treated with home remedies and without the requirement for medical intervention.  However, sunburn should be treated promptly and as a first aid situation as the damage can be minimized by acting quickly.

If your child has been sunburned, read this advice immediately.

Here is some guidance to treat your sunburn safely and effectively:

  • Lie in a cool bath or take a cool shower under a slow stream of water to help ease the pain – you can do this repeatedly during the day
  • Pat yourself dry with a towel, don’t rub the skin which will make it sore and could increase the damage
  • Apply moisturizer whilst your skin is still partially wet, and use a product that contains aloe vera which will also calm and soothe the inflammation. By leaving water droplets on your skin, it helps trap moisture in.  Sunburn will make your skin very dry and dehydrated and it is important to try and replace that moisture.  Avoid products that are scented or fragranced as these may sting and increase sensitivity
  • Drink plenty of water as internal dehydration can be a problem; sunburn draws away fluid from the rest of the body to the skin’s surface
  • Wear loose cotton clothing that doesn’t touch the skin and allows air to circulate. Avoid tight clothing and artificial materials which encourage the skin to sweat
  • Cover up so keep all of your skin protected if you have to go outside – choose clothing that doesn’t allow any light through at all

(Guidance source:

aloe vera gel for sunburn

Aloe Vera gel for sunburn; contains a little menthol for a nice cooling effect. 

Some things to avoid when treating sunburn

Never use Vaseline or petroleum jelly or butter on sunburnt skin – these products can make the sunburn worse and impede healing. Sometimes, they can also cause allergic rashes.

Another thing to definitely avoid is the use of ice packs directly onto the skin to cool it as these are actually too cold.  If you want to use icepacks then wrap them in a towel first and only apply to the skin for 15 minutes.  Cold compresses made of a gauze material are better because they can be changed every 15 minutes and discarded which can be important for infection control.

Never scratch or remove peeling skin, let it fall away naturally however annoying or unsightly it is.  This is nature’s way of removing damaged skin cells and is a natural process that should be allowed to occur without intervention.

Why can sunburn be so serious?

Sunburn at the very least can accelerate skin aging, something most people would be keen to avoid and in the worse case scenarios, it can cause basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma which is a form of skin cancer.

Sunburn can cause these potentially fatal skin conditions later in life with only one or two prior episodes.  Incidents in single figures can double your chance of developing a life-threatening skin lesion in later years.  But the good news is that sunburn can be prevented with care and sensible precautions.

Other more serious complications of sunburn

Sometimes, sunburn can be very serious and go beyond a situation which is treatable at home with home remedies.  You should seek urgent medical help if you experience one or more of the following:

  • Severe blistering over a large part of the body
  • Fever or chills or both which alternate
  • If you feel vague, disorientated or confused

Top Tips for sunburn

  • get out of the sun or cover up as soon as you become aware of it
  • You can take over-the-counter medications like Paracetamol or Ibuprofen which can help relieve pain and discomfort
  • If your skin blisters then don’t pop them, the blisters are there for a reason, to help your skin heal and protect the underlying skin structures from infection

Remember how painful sunburn is and use that as your incentive to cover up when out in the sunshine – learn from the burn!

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