You hate hearing your mother say "I told you so" — which is just one more reason not to slip up on your sun protection this summer. She's been preaching the importance of sunscreen since you were a kid, but you've still found ways to fail to put it on, forget to reapply it after 80 minutes, or buy a laughably low SPF 15 instead of 30+.
But it doesn't really matter why you got a sunburn, or what your mother has to say about it. All that counts right now is figuring out how to cure it ASAP.
The first step to treating a sunburn is to, well, get out of the sun. After that, you've got to address the immediate side effects, including the stinging, redness, and swelling, but also treat the long-term damage. Celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau explains that a sunburn is a sign of free-radical damage, which can lead to getting wrinkles much earlier than expected.
So what's a red-faced person to do? The best expert advice for treating a sunburn, ahead.
Drink A Glass Of Cold Water
Whether you notice your burn immediately or a few hours after leaving the beach, the first thing you should do after getting out of the sun is hydrate. Your body loses fluids when it's overheated, and both Rouleau and dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, FAAD, advise drinking a cold glass of water after getting a sunburn (or spending any time in the sun, period).
Use An Ice Pack
Find a cool compress to take down swelling and lower the temperature of overheated skin. Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, says that the same way ice can soothe a thermal burn, it can do the same for a sunburn. To protect your skin from direct contact with ice (ouch), he suggests using an ice pack or wrapping it in a towel before applying to the burn.
Try OTC Anti-Inflammatories
Notice swelling? Dr. Robinson suggests that if you're feeling added discomfort or stinging from the swollen burn, this would be a good time to take an oral anti-inflammatory to heal the skin from the inside out.
Take A Cool Shower
Hop in a lukewarm or cool shower to rinse off any sunscreen residue, sand, and sweat before using any topical sunburn remedies. The water will also help relieve your overheated skin and bring your body temperature back down to a comfortable level. This is a good place to start your skin treatment by using a gentle hydrating cleanser to wash — not scrub! — the skin, Dr. Zeichner says.
Take A Bath
Shower sound too painful? Skip it for a milk or oatmeal bath. Rouleau says that mixing six cups of whole milk into a lukewarm or cool tub of water will soothe skin fast. The fat and proteins in the milk have an anti-inflammatory effect, while oatmeal is a natural redness reducer and repairs the skin barrier.
Apply A Cooling Lotion
After carefully drying off, Dr. Zeichner suggests using a lightweight healing lotion to repair the skin barrier. Beware of using a thicker formula, like a butter or balm, which could lock in the burning sensation that's causing discomfort. Instead, reach for a formula with antioxidants, like pure aloe vera or vitamin E, that will reduce the free-radical damage from the sun exposure and soothe redness. Rouleau adds that keeping your burn hydrated with lotion won't just speed up the healing process, but help you avoid that uncomfortable tightness that tends to follow a sunburn.
If you opt for aloe vera, Dr. Robinson says to be aware of the other ingredients in the mix: Make sure it's formulated with 100% of the hero ingredient and avoid any additives, colors, fragrances, and numbing agents that can be more irritating to the burn. If that doesn't completely stop the pain or itching, a topical antihistamine should nip any discomfort in the bud.
For a face sunburn, Rouleau suggests a cooling gel-based mask that will quench your thirsty skin, alleviate tightness, and offer some relief. For an even more calming effect, leave the gel in the fridge for 30 minutes before putting it on the skin. Repeat application every three hours. Don't have time to run out and pick up a gel mask? Steal the plain yogurt from your fridge as an alternative. "It works as an anti-inflammatory," Rouleau says. "Apply, let it dry for 15 minutes, and rinse. Repeat this process every hour."
Avoid Wearing Makeup
We get it: Going to work with a Rudolph nose isn't ideal when you have a big meeting first thing Monday morning. Unfortunately, hiding your burn underneath a full-coverage foundation may only do more harm than good. "It’s definitely not helpful," says dermatologist Kenneth Howe, MD, of Wexler Dermatology. "Sunburned skin suffers physical damage from excess ultraviolet radiation, which in turn triggers an inflammatory reaction. Makeup, particularly heavy products, runs the risk of further aggravating the situation."
If you choose to wear makeup anyway, make sure to at least wear moisturizer underneath (it acts as a barrier between your skin and the makeup), use soft brushes and wet sponges to pat on product, and opt for mineral formulas (the fewer chemicals, the better).
Don't Peel Your Skin
Depending on the severity of the burn, it could take three to four days for the redness to subside, says Rouleau. In fact, the burn will develop for at least 12 hours after it first surfaces. And for it to fully heal? Well, all the pros agree that takes even longer — at least a week, if not two.
In the meantime, the burn might begin to peel, which you should not pick. "The natural healing process of a sunburn is for the skin to peel, which can start a few days after you get the burn," Rouleau explains. "You can scar the skin by peeling it before it's ready to come off. Just let it shed naturally." In other words, be patient — and get comfortable sleeping with a bottle of aloe at your bedside.
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