It is a truth universally acknowledged by, um, everyone that nothing ruins a nice day week faster than a sunburn. You know them, you hate them, and yet you still find yourself gingerly touching your red chest to gauge your pain scale at least a handful of times every year. Bottom line: Sunburns f*cking suuuuuuuck hard and there’s no other way to say it.
ICYMI, there is an easy way to chill outside and still prevent the red splotch from hell. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (aka one that’ll protect against both types of harmful UV rays) of SPF 30 or higher 15 minutes before sun exposure, per the American Academy of Dermatology’s guidelines. Oh, and reapply about every two hours for optimal coverage. Yes, even in the winter. If you want to game the system, look into buying a moisturizer that already has SPF in it. Boom, you’re welcome.
But given that you’re probably lying on a cold tile floor frantically Googling “home sunburn remedies help me!!!!!” I’d say it’s a little late for SPF. No shame, we’ve all been there! There’s a layer of Vaseline (peep tip #13) on my nose as I type this right now.
Good news though: While you’re going to be stuck looking like a lobster for a couple of days (ugh), there are actually a ton of dermatologist-approved methods for making your sunburn feel better and go away faster. Read below to find out how to ease your sunburn pain ASAP.
Um, easiest remedy ever. Just hop in a cool shower (or tub) for some instant relief. The cold water will feel amazing and actually make your skin appear less red by reducing inflammation. But whatever you do, don’t rub your burn with a towel when you get out. Doing so will disrupt your skin barrier even more, which you def don’t want right now, explains dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine. Instead, use the towel to gently pat yourself dry.
You’ve probably heard of applying a cold compress to a sunburn—but this hack takes it to a whole new level. Wet a washcloth, put it in the freezer for a few hours, and you magically have what Dr. Gohara calls a clothsicle (getting this trademarked, brb). Place it over your skin to soothe any burning sensations and calm redness. If you’re dealing with a seriously uncomfy or large burn, make a few clothsicles at a time so you’ll always have one on hand, recommends Dr. Gohara.
Oookay, so aloe isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking sunburn remedy. But according to Dr. Gohara, it’s super popular for a reason. Aloe is anti-inflammatory, meaning it calms the skin to reduce the redness and pain you’re dealing with. And if you put the bottle in the fridge for a bit before applying it, the already cool gel will feel even better, says Dr. Gohara.
You know that cream your mom used to give you for bug bites that got really itchy? Yeah, that’s what this is. Just like aloe, it’s anti-inflammatory, so it’ll calm your skin down, says Dr. Gohara. If you have an itchy sunburn, hydrocortisone cream is definitely the way to go. It has ingredients that’ll cure the itch and soothe your skin. We love it.
Bad news: A sunburn leaves the outer layer of your skin d-a-m-a-g-e-d. Don’t worry, once you tone down the inflammation, it’ll naturally start to regenerate itself, says Dr. Gohara. But if you want to speed up the process, she recommends slathering on a moisturizer with healing ingredients, like Avène’s Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream. It’s made with sucralfate, a special ingredient that helps your skin regenerate.
Yeah, you read that right. According to Dr. Gohara, soaking a cloth in milk and putting it on your burn will feel awesome—and help it heal too. That’s because milk contains vitamins A and D, which help repair damaged cells, and lactic acid, a gentle exfoliator that will help the dead skin peel right off. Pro tip: Stand in the shower while you try this.
Feeling lazy? I gotchu. Fill your tub with lukewarm water (anything hotter will just aggravate your sunburn) and dump in a couple of cups of oats. Oats combat inflammation, so they’ll chill your skin right out. Wanna get fancy? You can add some milk to the bath too, says Dr. Gohara. That way, you’ll get the benefits from both.
As long as you do it within the first few hours of getting your sunburn, popping a couple of ibuprofen (or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug like aspirin) can actually make your sunburn go away faster. Just keep taking ’em every four to six hours until the pain subsides.
Once the redness and swelling go down, your skin cells can repair the sunburned skin’s barrier and generate new skin, explains Shari Lipner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine, and member of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Ever notice that you feel extra thirsty when your skin’s looking crispy? According to the American Academy of Dermatology, that’s because a sunburn attracts fluid to the skin’s surface and takes it away from the rest of the body. Drinking extra water post-sunburn will make you feel better and keep you from getting dehydrated. Because sunburn + dehydration = hell.
If you’re dealing with a sunburn on your face, ditch any exfoliators, toners, face masks, acne medications, and anti-aging products till it starts to heal, please. Sun damage can make your skin extra sensitive (yes, even to products you use daily) so you could end up with a rash or blisters if you keep up your usual routine.
Also, steer clear of any products that contain lidocaine or benzocaine. Numbing agents might sound like a good idea, but they can actually cause sunburned skin to flare up. Yikes.
Seriously, don’t. But if you’re dead set on covering up the redness, gently dust on a light powder. You don’t want to put any heavy liquid formulas on because they prevent the skin from receiving oxygen and could further irritate it. And if you can help it, don’t use makeup brushes. They’ll just irritate the skin further, Dr. Gohara says. Use a makeup sponge or your (clean) fingers instead.
Sweatpants FTW. Tight clothing and snug straps can chafe, creating painful blisters on the skin that’s already damaged. Ow. To keep from aggravating the area, wear loose clothing that doesn’t stick—yes, even if it means wearing a strapless bra to keep sunburned shoulders bare. Or, ya know, just go braless. In terms of fabric, opt for synthetic polyester and nylon blends, like those sweat-wicking tees you wear to the gym. They will keep your skin cool and won’t cling.
You might think putting a bandaid over your blisters is a good idea, but just imagine what it’s gonna feel like to pull it off your sunburn later *Cringe*. Instead, cover each individual blister—not the entire burn, please—with Vaseline. It’s basically nature’s bandaid, says Dr. Gohara. “It’s a really good protective barrier so it will help the skin heal but you don’t have to have any adhesive on it,” she explains.
I know, I know, there’s something so satisfying about picking and peeling your flaky sunburned skin. But pleeeease don’t. If you mess with it, you’re more likely to have discoloration or scarring once your skin heals.
Staying in the sun after your sunburn symptoms first develop can do more damage to the area or expand it, says Dr. Lipner. If you still wanna be outside, find some shade and cover the sunburned area with clothing. Any fabric you can’t see light through when you hold it up the sun should have a tight enough weave to protect you. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat is another smart move with a bonus: You’ll look chic.
If you have a large sunburn, lots of blisters, or feel like you might have a fever (yup!), call your derm, says Dr. Gohara. And if you’re getting sunburns on the reg, definitely head in for a visit. They’ll be able to help you determine how to better care for your skin and make sure that you’re not at risk for developing skin cancer.