Many of us have been stuck inside for…a long time at this point. So if you accidentally spent a little too much time in the sun recently and you’re wondering how to get rid of that sunburn, hey, I get it.
Even if you do your best to protect your skin from the sun, sometimes shit happens. You probably know that you should be wearing SPF every day (if you don’t, hi, you should!), and it’s even more important to put sunscreen on before you spend time out in the sun—and reapply it regularly. But, listen, there’s a lot going on right now, and we understand if it slipped your mind. And now maybe you’re dealing with a sunburn on those shoulders that haven’t seen the sun since well before the pandemic. Maybe you’re anxiously Googling “how to get rid of sunburn around a face mask.” We don’t know your life. But we are here to help. That’s why we consulted dermatologists for the best steps you can take to treat your sunburn symptoms.
What causes a sunburn
That burnt-to-a-crisp feeling happens when your skin is exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. UV light is a wavelength of sunlight, the Mayo Clinic explains. There’s Ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which is the kind that causes skin aging, and Ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, which leads to sunburns. Both can result in skin cancer. There’s also Ultraviolet C (UVC) radiation, although the ozone layer blocks most of these rays from reaching Earth, according to the National Cancer Institute.
When your skin is exposed to UV light, your body tries to protect itself by making melanin, the dark pigment in the outer layer of your skin, which causes your skin to darken a bit, according to the Mayo Clinic. But that can only help so much, even in people with dark skin, which signals that they have a lot of protective melanin. If you’re roasting in a ton of UV light, you can pass right by the tanning threshold, winding up with the redness, stinging or itching sensation, and swelling that characterize sunburns. Your skin may also actually feel hot and bubble up into small blisters. If your sunburn is really intense, you might deal with a headache, fever, nausea, and fatigue as well, according to the Mayo Clinic.
These symptoms usually show up a few hours after your sun overexposure, but it could take a day or longer to know just how bad your burn is, the Mayo Clinic says. A few days after the burn, the top layer of your skin may peel off (this is your body’s attempt to heal itself), and the layer below that may have an unusual color and pattern for a bit.
Every sunburn is different, but bad ones can take several days or longer to heal, the Mayo Clinic says.
How to get rid of sunburn redness and pain
Okay, so unfortunately there’s nothing you can do to magically make your sunburn disappear, but there are a few tactics you can try to ease your suffering.
Once you realize you’ve been burned, it’s important to get out of the sun and treat the burn as soon as you can, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says. Try a few (or all) of these tips to help:
Take cool baths or showers.
Hot water can irritate your (already aggravated) skin, but relaxing under a cool stream can help soothe inflammation, Gary Goldenberg, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells SELF. If you can submerge yourself in a cool bath, even better.
As soon as you get out of the tub or shower, gently pat yourself dry. Leave a little moisture on your skin, then apply a moisturizer, the AAD advises. This helps trap the water on your skin and can reduce dryness that would exacerbate your irritation.
If you don’t have time to hang in the shower or bath, try placing a cool, damp towel on your skin for relief, Dr. Goldenberg says, and then follow it up with moisturizer.
Use a moisturizer with aloe vera, soy, or calamine. If that’s not enough, try a hydrocortisone cream.
People often champion aloe vera for its skin-soothing properties, including the Mayo Clinic and the AAD. And it can indeed help with the irritation of a sunburn. Soy might be a more surprising ingredient for sunburn aftercare, but it could allow your skin to trap more moisturizing water, according to research published in the journal Nutrients. You might also want to apply calamine lotion, according to the Mayo Clinic, to help with the itching and discomfort. And if you’re really having a rough go of it, you can use an OTC hydrocortisone cream, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Heads up: You’ll want to avoid products with petroleum, as moisturizing as they may seem, because they can trap heat in your skin, the AAD says.
Here are a few sunburn relief products that our editors tried and loved.
Take a pain reliever.
Your body sees a sunburn as an injury, so it responds with inflammation, Misha Rosenbach, M.D., associate professor of dermatology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, tells SELF. Cue the pain. Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever, especially a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug like aspirin or ibuprofen, can help calm down your dermatological fire, Dr. Goldenberg says.
Avoid using pain relief products with ingredients ending in -caine.
There are plenty of pain-relieving creams and sprays out there with ingredients ending in -caine, like lidocaine and benzocaine. Take a pass on using them for your sunburn. They can irritate your tender skin or even cause an allergic reaction, the Mayo Clinic says.
Drink a lot of water.
Everyone’s fluid needs are different, but most women should drink around 11.5 cups of liquids a day, according to the Mayo Clinic. (This includes fluids from drinks like coffee and the foods you eat.) Aim to have a few extra cups of liquid per day if you’re sunburned, Dr. Goldenberg says, but don’t push it to the point where you’re uncomfortable. Alternately, don’t stop there if you still feel parched. Listen to your body.
What to do if your skin is peeling or blistering
If you have blisters, don’t even think about popping them. Blisters, which are your skin’s way of trying to heal and stave off infection, mean you have a second-degree burn that has gone past the outer layer of your skin, the AAD says. Though it’s super tempting to pop them, don’t. You might just be signing up for an infection, or at the very least, a world of pain.
If a blister breaks on its own, the Mayo Clinic recommends cleaning it with mild soap and water, dabbing on some antibiotic cream, then applying a nonstick gauze bandage.
If your skin is blistering a lot or is extremely red and painful, or if you try these treatment options and are still in severe discomfort, call your dermatologist. You may need a prescription for an oral corticosteroid like prednisone to help with the inflammation or antibiotics if you’ve developed an infection, Dr. Goldenberg says. Hopefully that will help you put this sunburn behind you.
Unfortunately, peeling may also happen as a result of sunburn. According to the Mayo Clinic, this happens when the top layer of skin is damaged. Keeping the areas moisturized is your best bet.
How to prevent sunburn the next time you go outside
We know you didn’t come here for a lecture or anything, but we’re just going to leave some sun safety tips right here if you need them. When it comes to sunburns, as Dr. Rosenbach says, the best defense is a good offense: “Try not to get sunburned in the first place.”
A great way to do that: Wear sunscreen! But that’s not the only sun-safety tip that should be in your arsenal. It’s also important to spend less time in direct sunlight (shade is your friend) and if you are going to be outside for a good chunk of time and aren’t sure you’ll be able to reapply as often as needed, wear clothes that protect your skin from the sun. The Skin Cancer Foundation has some great information on sun-safe clothing.
“Stacking one sunburn on top of another is not a great idea,” Dr. Rosenbach says.
Originally Appeared on SELF