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A sunburn feels awful enough on its own, but if it gets really bad, your skin can also develop uncomfortable blisters (and you’ll be browsing our list of the best home remedies for sunburns). According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), blistering skin is an indication of second-degree burn, which is no joke. So you want to treat the area with extra special care.
“Sun blisters develop when the skin becomes so inflamed that connections between skin cells become disrupted,” explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “This leads to splitting of the skin, which ultimately fills with serous fluid.”
These blisters don’t exactly look or feel great, especially because you’re already dealing with red, painful, swollen, and even peeling skin. Plus, they’re a sign that significant damage has been done: Just one blistering sunburn as a kid or teen more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, later in life, per the Skin Cancer Foundation.
To heal your skin properly (and protect it from future harm), we asked dermatologists to share their pro tips on how to treat a sun blister safely.
Sunburn blisters treatment
Treating sunburn blisters mostly consists of patience and waiting for them to heal. However, there are a few steps you can take to give your skin a bit of extra love:
1. Drink lots of water
When you have a sunburn, your body shuttles water from other areas to your skin, per the AAD. Chugging plenty of H2O can move the process along and will prevent dehydration.
2. Cover the blister up
If you just have a few blisters, Dr. Zeichner recommends covering them with a bandage to avoid accidentally traumatizing them. “They will heal all on their own in the overwhelming majority of cases,” he says. It’s also a good idea to cover the area when you go outside. Wear tightly-woven fabrics (like soft cotton) for max protection and comfort, the AAD says.
3. Keep it cold
Applying ice (make sure it’s wrapped in something!) to the area can help reduce swelling and pain, says Gary Goldenberg, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Cold, damp compresses will offer similar relief.
4. Moisturize like crazy
Keeping your blister covered is crucial, but you still need to treat the surrounding burn with care. Avoid hot showers (opt for cool baths if you can) and use gentle, hydrating soaps like Dove Deep Moisture Body Wash. After, slather on a basic body lotion (like Vaseline Clinical Care Extremely Dry Rescue Lotion) or aloe vera gel while the skin is slightly damp.
5. Apply a steroid cream
A topical steroid cream like 1% hydrocortisone can help relieve any itching and keep inflammation under control, Dr. Goldenberg says.
6. Take OTC pain meds if you need to
7. Monitor it carefully if it pops
You should not pop a sun blister (more on that later), however, if one does pop open, the Mayo Clinic recommends very carefully cleaning the area with gentle soap and water. Apply antibiotic ointment and cover the exposed skin with nonstick gauze or a bandage. Keep a close eye on it: If a rash forms or it starts to feel worse, see your doctor ASAP.
❗If you are in severe pain, have blisters over large areas of your body, have developed a fever or any signs of infection, like extreme redness, warmth, or pus, Dr. Zeichner says it’s time to see your doctor.
Popping sunburn blisters
While it’s tempting to pop those fluid-filled pockets, it’s definitely not the best idea. The blisters are there to help your skin heal and to protect you from infection, so if you pop them, you could compromise both. “Think of the top of the blister like nature’s Band-Aid, protecting the raw skin underneath,” Dr. Zeichner says.
That means you should “absolutely not” pop a sun blister, even if you really, really want to, urges Dr. Goldenberg. “Blisters should be allowed to drain and pop by themselves,” he says.
How long do sunburn blisters last?
Dr. Goldenberg says it can take up to two weeks for blisters to dissipate, but that healing time can be exacerbated by agitation and popping, so be sure to treat yours with gentleness and care, along with the tips provided above.
How to prevent a sunburn blister
Once your sunburn blister heals, your skin may be even more vulnerable to UV damage. The only way to truly prevent a sunburn (and the painful blisters that can come with one) is to apply sunscreen regularly:
Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
Apply at least 1 ounce (a shot glass-sized amount) of sunscreen to your whole body. Lotions, compared to sticks or sprays, are the easiest to rub in generously.
Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
These dermatologist-approved options are a good place to start:
It also helps to wear UPF sun-protective clothing and take shade when you can. Enjoying summer is great, but staying healthy is even better.
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