Medically reviewed by Julia A. Siegel, MD
If you've ever gotten a sunburn on your lips, you definitely already know just how painful they can be. And if you haven't, consider yourself lucky—and consider this a big FYI that sunburned lips are a very real thing (so make sure to wear a good lip balm with SPF, among other preventative measures we'll detail below). As is the case with a sunburn anywhere, the big takeaway is to make sure you're safeguarding all of your skin from damaging UV rays. But even if your sunscreen game is on point when it comes to your face and body, the lips are an oft-forgotten spot. Ahead, dermatologists explain more about why sunburned lips happen, the signs to look for, and your best treatment and prevention strategies.
Meet the Experts
Marnie Nussbaum, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
Margarita Lolis, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Hackensack, New Jersey.
Hadley King, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
Causes of Sunburned Lips
Obviously the sun's UV rays are the primary culprit for sunburned lips, but there's some biological nuance at play that makes the lips even extra susceptible. "The lips are much more prone to sunburn than the rest of the face and body, as they're more delicate and have fewer layers of skin, just three to six layers of cells as compared to 16 layers elsewhere," explains board-certified dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD.
In related info, the skin cells on the lips also have no keratin protein, which typically keeps skin hydrated. This weakens the protective barrier of lip skin, meaning it has less protection from UV radiation, according to board-certified dermatologist Margarita Lolis, MD. Finally, the lips also contain very little melanin—skin pigment that also acts as natural protection from the sun—plus they're a part of the body that's constantly exposed, according to board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD. All of this adds up to the lips being much more vulnerable to sun damage and burning.
Signs of Sunburned Lips
It's pretty hard to miss a lip sunburn, as it's definitely going to feel uncomfortable, if not downright painful. "The lips may look more red and swollen, feel hot, and there may be a stinging, burning or tight sensation," King tells us.
If it's a really bad burn, you may notice some blisters, too. "Sunburn lip blisters are small, white, fluid-filled bumps that appear on severely sunburned skin," Lolis explains. The UV damage causes inflammation to the skin, and if there's enough of it, it will cause fluid to accumulate. King also notes that if you have blistering, this is actually considered a second-degree burn.
How to Treat Sunburned Lips
When it comes to treating sunburned lips, you have several options. If one doesn't work for you, you can easily move onto another to see if it provides relief.
Apply a cold compress: Nussbaum suggests applying a cold compress as soon as you can, and repeating as often as needed. Once it warms up, replace it with another. Cold water works here, but you can also try cold, low-fat milk—soak a washcloth and apply for 15 minutes. "The enzymes provide gentle exfoliation, and the proteins, vitamins, and minerals are anti-inflammatory," King says. (She adds that full-fat milk isn't ideal, as it can hold in heat.)
Take Tylenol or Advil: Just as with other sources of pain and discomfort, our experts say that taking an over-the-counter NSAID, such as ibuprofen, can provide a bit of relief while decreasing inflammation.
Use a moisturizing lip balm: "It's important to replenish moisture in the lips and prevent them from drying out even more," Nussbaum explains, adding that she especially likes formulas with shea butter, aloe vera, and ceramides for this purpose.
Resist the urge to pick: You probably know that peeling a sunburn on your body isn't the smartest idea, and the same advice goes for sunburned lips. Avoid popping or picking at any blisters, as this can lead to potential infection and scarring, Lolis cautions.
Stay hydrated: Lolis says that drinking lots of water to help replenish hydration is also a good idea. This way, you'll minimize any dryness adding to your discomfort and can focus on healing.
How to Prevent Sunburned Lips
As is always the case when it comes to sunburn, prevention is key. A lot of the same sun protective strategies you'd practice in general apply here, with a few adjustments to be sure you're caring for the commonly forgotten lips.
Wear protective clothing: "A hat with a brim that's broad enough to protect the entire face, including the lips, is a great option," King says. "UPF scarves or neck gaiters can also be worn over the lower face."
Minimize sun exposure during peak hours: Ideally, try to avoid being in direct sunlight between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when UV rays are the strongest. If you do find yourself out during this time, be extra vigilant about protection.
Use a lip product with SPF: Of course, using a lip product with SPF protection is paramount—think of it as a part of your routine, just like regular sunscreen. A few key guidelines apply as always: Look for a broad-spectrum formula with at least SPF 30, Lolis says. You're also better off sticking with balms or sticks that have a matte finish, as anything glossy can end up attracting the sun's rays, she notes.
Don't forget to reapply: Remember that as with all sunscreen, reapplication of SPF lip products is absolutely essential, perhaps even more than ever. We're constantly eating, drinking, and wiping our mouths—all things that can remove sunscreen, King points out. Do your best to reapply every two hours, or after eating or drinking.
The Final Takeaway
Sunburned lips are a very real—and painful—thing, but luckily, preventing the issue is fairly simple and straightforward. Using lip products with SPF—as well as taking other steps to minimize UV exposure—goes a long way in helping you to avoid the condition, and if you still end up getting a sunburn on your lips, several at-home treatment steps will help you to minimize discomfort and dryness as the area heals.
It's also worth noting that skin cancer is a possibility on the lips. "It’s really important to prioritize yearly skin cancer checks, and to prevent lip sunburns, as the lips are prone to pre-cancers and squamous cell carcinoma skin cancers," says Nussbaum, who adds that thiese mostly appear on the lower lip. (King also notes that skin cancers on the lip have a higher risk of becoming invasive than in other areas.) Lip skin cancers can show up as peeling or red lips that then turn white, bleeding, pain, or a sore or lump that won't go away, Nussbaum says. If you notice anything new or changing on your lips, see your doctor immediately.