Updated 7/1/17. No matter your skin tone, we’ve all experienced a sunburn at one point or another. Symptoms include a bright red face that’s painful and warm to the touch along with an overall tight, dry feeling. All in all, it’s no fun. While no one intentionally tries to get sunburned, the sun is strong, and skin damage can sneak up quickly. Here’s my expert advice for how to soothe a sunburn and minimize the damage—and how to prevent it from happening again. But first, let me quickly talk about sunburns.
Why Do Sunburns Occur?
Not wearing sunscreen. People think when it’s an overcast day, they are not at risk for potential sunburn. False! The burning UVB rays can penetrate through clouds and still put your skin at risk. Also, when temperatures are fairly cool (such as on a Fall day), people think the sun isn’t strong and that sunscreen is not necessary. Wrong again. The temperature outside is never an indication of how strong or weak the sun’s rays are.
Not being careful with your application. If you don’t cover every little area, you’re at risk for burning in certain spots. This most often occurs with spray sunscreens because you can’t control the application in the same way you can when applying a lotion or cream with your fingers.
Not applying enough sunscreen. Most people don’t apply their sunscreen generously enough to get full protection. You’ve got to really load it on in order for it to do its job.
Trusting that a high SPF number will keep you protected. Did you know that an SPF 30 offers only 4% more sun protection than an SPF 15? And an SPF 45 offers only 2% more than an SPF 30? And the higher up you go, that percentage lessens? So while this may come as a surprise to many of you, it’s important to know that a high SPF number can give you a false sense of protection.
Not reapplying sunscreen often enough. Sunscreen wears off, sweats off and washes off. You absolutely must apply it at least every 90 minutes.
What Can Help My Skin Once I Get Sunburned?
Drink cold water. Since your body loses fluids when it’s overheated, it’s important to drink ice water to keep the body’s temperature down and to internally hydrate.
Soak in milk. Soak in the tub with lukewarm or cool water mixed with six cups of whole milk. Why? A cool bath helps to lower the internal body temperature and milk, due to its fat, protein and pH, can have an anti-inflammatory effect. Thus, it provides some comfort to tight, burned skin.
Apply a cooling gel mask or natural aloe vera gel. The goal of treating a sunburn is to decrease pain and remove heat from within the skin. To do this, use a thick coat of a cooling gel-based product on the body or a gel masque formulated for the face (like Bio Calm Repair Masque). This can lower the skin’s temperature and deliver water to thirsty cells to alleviate the tight feeling and bring some relief. Place any gel product in the refrigerator 30 minutes before use to increase its cooling benefits. Apply a gel mask or aloe vera gel to the skin, let dry for 15 minutes and rinse. Repeat every three hours.
A few quick thoughts about aloe vera gel. While aloe is a good healing ingredient, many aloe products contain synthetic dyes and fragrance. ( (Dyes are usually responsible for aloe’s bright green color you often see. Yuck! Natural aloe vera gel is clear to a slightly golden color.) Artificial colorants and dyes may further irritate already sensitive skin, so ensure the aloe is both dye and fragrance free.
If you don’t have a gel masque, apply cold plain yogurt. When applied to skin, it works as an anti-inflammatory to reduce heat and irritation. Apply, let dry for 15 minutes, and rinse. Repeat every hour.
After rinsing off a mask, apply a lightweight skin oil with antioxidants. Once you remove the gel, I recommend applying a treatment oil that contains antioxidants, like Pro Remedy Oil. Sunburn is the ultimate sign of free radical-induced inflammation and skin damage, and using topical antioxidants may help encourage repair deep within the skin. The types of oils to look for include pomegranate seed oil, cranberry oil and rosehip oil. Since the skin has essentially been “fried,” it can feel extremely stiff. With every move you make, the tight skin pulls and causes pain. An oil will lubricate the skin to lessen the tug and pull effect. Apply a few drops of a reparative, vitamin-packed skin oil post-mask to provide a variety of benefits as well as some welcomed relief.
Don’t over moisturize. Many people want to excessively apply lotion in an effort to moisturize and heal the skin, but if you apply too much lotion, the heavy layers may create a barrier and trap heat in the skin. This will keep it red longer. I prefer using a very thin layer of a skin oil. If you’re using lotion, be sure to use one that has a lighter consistency—not one that is too thick or greasy.
Be patient and allow time for it to heal. For most mild to moderate sunburns, it takes 3-4 days for redness to subside.
If the skin peels, don’t pick! The natural healing process of a sunburn is for the skin to peel, starting a few days after a burn. The sunburn has already caused enough damage, so the worst thing you can do is start to peel off layers of skin—especially those that are not yet ready to come off. You can scar the skin by doing this, so just let the skin shed naturally. After a week, you can gently rub the skin on the body lightly with a soft scrub or a loofah to help remove some of the surface flakiness. And most importantly, be careful when you get out of the shower because the dry cells are very soft and will rub off easily. You could risk also pulling off live tissue, which could result in oozing scabs. Be patient. Always work with Mother Nature and never go against her.
Don’t make the same mistakes again. I can’t tell you how many times clients tell me, “I applied sunscreen and I still got burned. I even used an SPF 70!” Think about what you may have not done correctly the next time you’re outdoors. Always wear sunscreen, even it it’s an overcast day. Reapply a thick coat every two hours when spending a lot of time outside. Skin is very vulnerable and needs to stay protected. Once you get sunburned, no amount of sunscreen can stop the burn from appearing. Get out of the sun right away!
Uh oh. Did the sunburn cause brown spots to show up? Read 7 ways to get rid of them.
Lastly, I was recently asked by Byrdie to comment on a sunburn that Alexander Skarsgard had. He’s very easy on the eye but his sunburn sure looks painful!
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