The sun is shining. You’re outside soaking up Vitamin D and getting all kinds of tan. And suddenly, your dermis is fried. It’s burnt, it’s itchy, it’s peeling. And that’s the superficial stuff. Under a microscope, your DNA and skin cells are mutating permanently, a side effect of exposure to ultraviolet rays that can lead to skin cancer. (Not to mention, other superficial side effects like fine lines and dark spots on the skin.) So: How do you treat sunburned skin?
More specifically, what are the ways to minimize the pain of sunburned skin, and to reverse the damage that’s been done? For these answers, we sought the expertise of dermatologist David Lortscher, M.D., the CEO and founder of Curology customized skincare. He knows a thing or two (or a million) about the topic, and gave us some hope for the road to recovery—and a few warnings, too.
First, Classify the Burn
Just as you would classify a heat burn, you can rank a sunburn as first-, second-, or third-degree, depending on severity. “Most sunburns are classified as superficial or first-degree burns,” Lortscher says. “Although uncomfortable, they will generally heal without complication.” (You might experience some peeling and/or dryness, but it should be fine after a few days to a week.)
Second-degree burns can lead to bodily dehydration or infection at the site. Third-degree burns, says Lortscher, may necessitate an IV and even hospitalization in a burn unit. “A person with third-degree burns could go into shock, because it decreases circulation to vital organs, and it could be life-threatening.”
On that note, Lortscher urges that you visit your primary care physician if you experience any of the following symptoms post-burn: severe pain, severe blistering, headaches, fever or chills, nausea and vomiting, faint or dizzy feelings, confusion or altered states of consciousness, a rapid heartbeat, extreme thirst, reduced urination, or the development of pus, and increased swelling or tenderness in any blisters.
Since second- and third-degree burns require professional help, and because superficial first-degree burns are more common, we’ll just focus on the superficial first-degree burns here.
How to Recover From and Treat Sunburned Skin
The first thing you need to do is avoid the sun while you skin recovers. Forget your tan lines—you need to stay indoors as much as possible since you’re extra susceptible to the harmful UV rays. And, when you are ready, take extra caution: “After burned skin peels, the newly exposed layers are usually lighter in color as the more superficial tanned skin calls have been shed,” Lortscher says of the healing process. “These areas are more sensitive to sunlight and must be protected for several weeks—ideally by covering up with clothing, but if that’s not possible, by using sunscreen diligently.”
Lortscher tells his patients to take frequent cool baths and showers, since they can soothe raw, hot areas on the skin. He also likes the soothing effects of colloidal oatmeal, which can be found in bath products like Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment. (Or Google around for a DIY colloidal oatmeal bath recipe.)
Next: Manage the Pain and Moisturize
Follow that with an aloe-packed lotion or moisturizer, which has soothing and healing properties. (Try Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion.) More importantly, you need to shelve any products with an alcoholic base, like some toners and fragrances. “These can sting, and worsen any irritation,” he says. Ditto for any topical products ending in “-caine”, like benzocaine. They’ll irritate the burn and can trigger an allergic reaction.
If the pain doesn’t subside, Lortscher says to try a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), particularly ibuprofen (aka Advil) or aspirin. Painkillers have never been so appropriately named—just mind the dosage, as you normally would.
If you get blisters, let them break on their own. Lortscher advises against popping and draining them. And if it’s too severe, he reminds you to visit your primary care physician. Otherwise, for minor cases, just let your body heal itself. It’s designed to do that, and it doesn’t need interference from your impatience.
Once your skin heals, it might be a little dry. For this, Lortscher prescribes a topical product containing antioxidants—he prefers green tea or resveratrol—since they can repair damaged skin. (Try The Body Shop Fuji Green Tea Body Butter.) Then, he says, apply moisturizer or lotion as needed. “Products with hyaluronic acid or ceramides can be especially helpful to combat dryness,” he says. (In that case, try Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Body Oil or CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion with Hyaluronic Acid and Ceramides.)
How to Reverse Sun Damage to the Skin
Although you can alleviate the pain of a sunburn, you really can’t reverse the long-term cellular damage and DNA mutation it causes, Lortscher says. That’s why it’s so imperative to avoid excessive sun exposure—and tanning—in the first place.
However, you can reverse some superficial signs of aging and sun exposure with a proactive anti-aging regimen. Talk to your doctor about a topical retinol prescription, which can reduce fine lines and dark spots, and introduce anti-aging products into your skincare regimen, like Lab Series Daily Moisture Defense Eye Balm or Brickell’s Revitalizing Anti-Aging Cream.
Prevent Future Sunburned Skin
“Sunburn is better prevented than treated,” Lortscher says. While sunscreen is the obvious choice for sunburn prevention, it’s actually “the third line of defense against harmful UV rays. First should be avoiding or minimizing sun exposure by wisely choosing the time of day and location of outdoor activities—as much as is practical. Second is wearing hats, sunglasses, and clothing that covers skin—again, if it’s practical. And finally, your last defense is applying and reapplying liberal amounts of sunscreen to areas not covered by clothing.”
Apply an ounce of sunscreen (which looks like 2 tablespoons) to your body half an hour before going outside, Lortscher says. Most of the time, broad-spectrum SPF 15 will successfully thwart UVA and UVB rays. However, if you’re participating in outdoor activities or even laying in the sun all day, use broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher. (Check out some of our favorite sunscreens for athletes—or anyone, really.)
It’s also imperative to keep applying sunscreen. “Reapply the same amount every two hours. You should also reapply sunscreens immediately after swimming, toweling off, or sweating a great deal.” You should go through a quarter or a half of your 8-oz sunscreen bottle—per person—during a long day at the beach, Lortscher says.