Unhappy woman facing bathroom mirror

What to Do About Sunburns

Spent too much time out in the sun?

You probably already know that this can be extremely dangerous, not only because of the sunburn it can cause, but also because this increases your risk of developing skin cancer.

Of course, everybody makes mistakes, and if your skin is feeling sore and tender, you are probably looking for a way to relieve this discomfort as soon as possible.

Here are a few methods to help you to deal with your sunburn, along with some tips to prevent this from occurring again.

What Exactly is a Sunburn?

Before learning about what you should do to ease a sunburn, it is important to understand exactly what a sunburn is.

The term “sunburn” refers to skin that has been damaged by the sun’s UV rays. When these UV rays hit your skin, they cause damage to the various molecules in your skin cells, including the DNA in each and every one of them.

This then leads the skin to produce different proteins and enzymes, which then cause the blood vessels to dilate, while also encouraging inflammatory cells to take action.

These processes then lead to the common symptoms of a sunburn, which include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Pain and tenderness

Sunburns vary in severity, and the fact that the symptoms usually only arise several hours after being in the sun can mean that people often end up with serious sunburns without actually feeling this occurring at the time.

In addition to the above, the symptoms of a serious sunburn also include:

  • A fever and chills
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness

You may also experience some of the symptoms that come from shock, such as low blood pressure and fainting.

Other than the symptoms listed above, why are sunburns so bad?

Well, remember how it was mentioned earlier that the sun’s UV rays damage the DNA in your skin cells?

When this genetic material gets damaged, mutations occur. It only takes a certain amount of mutations before skin cancer forms.

Just a single sunburn can raise your risk of developing skin cancer, while five sunburns, no matter how spaced out these may be, will double your risk of developing melanoma, which is the most serious type of skin cancer.

That’s not all…

Sun damage also has an effect on the general health and appearance of your skin.

UV rays destroy the skin’s collagen and elastin, which are the two main proteins that keep the skin smooth and firm. This then accelerates the rate at which the skin ages, meaning that you are likely to experience an onset of fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots and sagging skin much earlier than you otherwise would have.

Of course, prevention is always better than cure, and this is something that will be discussed further down. In the meantime, read on to learn about what it is you should do when you have a sunburn…

Cool Off

If your sunburn has come on quite rapidly, the first thing that you need to do is cool down.

How?

This depends on where you are…

If you are near a pool or the sea, take a quick dip to cool your body off. However, only do this for a few seconds, as you don’t want to increase the amount of sun exposure your skin has to deal with.

Once you have done that, you can then dry off, cover up and move on to one of the other methods listed here.

How should you cool off if you aren’t near a pool or the sea?

A couple of effective methods include:

  • A cool shower or bath (but keep this short too, as you don’t want to dry out your skin)
  • A cold compress

Moisturize

A good moisturizer will not only soothe your irritated, sunburned skin, but it will also keep it hydrated and protected, enabling it to heal so much faster.

However, the type of moisturizer that you use is very important…

There are certain ingredients out there that are known for being especially effective when it comes to treating sunburns, so keep an eye out for one of the following:

  • Aloe Vera – the sunburn superstar, aloe vera tends to be the go-to natural remedy for many when dealing with a sunburn. Research has found that aloe vera is fantastic at encouraging skin healing, while also being packed with moisture and other beneficial nutrients. Aloe vera can also help to prevent the peeling that often occurs after a sunburn
  • Oatmeal – oatmeal is a great ingredient for irritated, sensitive skin. It is moisturizing, healing and soothing, while also being full of nutrients. You can either use a product that has been formulated with oatmeal, or run yourself a bath and add some colloidal oatmeal to the water
  • Green or Black Tea – tea contains tannins that significantly reduce inflammation and repair skin damage. There are many soothing skin care products out there that already contain tea, or you could also make a cold compress with some cooled tea, or even the used tea bags
  • Vitamin C – reduces inflammation while providing a bit of future protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Vitamin C is also good for increasing the skin’s natural collagen production and evening out the skin tone, fading discoloration, making this great for treating some of the long-term skin effects that a sunburn can have
  • Cucumber – cucumbers are cooling, soothing and packed with antioxidants. They also boast analgesic properties that relieve skin discomfort and encourage healing

One thing to keep in mind when applying your moisturizer…

Always apply your moisturizer on damp, rather than dry, skin.

Why?

This is something that applies even when you aren’t sunburned, but becomes all the more important when you are. Moisturizers work by forming a thin film over the surface of the skin, trapping in moisture and preventing it from evaporating.

If your skin already contains droplets of moisture when you apply a moisturizer, this means that all of those droplets end up being pushed into your skin by the moisturizer’s protective layer. Therefore, your skin receives an extra dose of moisture, which is exactly what it needs to recover from a sunburn.

Take an NSAID

Over-using medication is something that is never advised, but a sunburn definitely calls for some.

What type of medication should you take?

An NSAID, which stands for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug.

Examples of common NSAIDs include:

  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen
  • Celecoxib

Wondering how an NSAID will help with your sunburn?

Well, the reason why your skin becomes inflamed when it is sunburned is because your body views the sunburn as an injury. The inflammatory response that follows is absolutely normal, and is also what causes the pain associated with a sunburn.

An NSAID can help with pain relief big time. It will quickly reduce the inflammation, as well as the discomfort, and you can continue to take them until your sunburn is less painful.

Drink Up

Burns of any kind, including sunburns, cause the body’s fluids to be drawn up to the skin’s surface. This quickly leads to dehydration, which is why you need to increase your water intake when you are sunburned.

Dehydration will only slow down your body’s healing process, so make sure that you replenish all of this lost moisture by drinking up.

Bored of plain water?

Try fruit-infused waters instead, home-made ones rather than store-bought versions. This will give your body an added boost of antioxidants, encouraging its healing processes.

Sports drinks can also be beneficial, as they help to replenish lost electrolyes. Tea, in addition to being a great ingredient to use topically, can also help when consumed internally. If you’re not in the mood for a hot drink, try an iced tea instead, but make sure that you don’t add any extra sugar.

You should also be eating plenty of moisture-rich foods…

These will help with hydrating your body too.

Wondering which foods contain the most moisture?

Give some of these a try:

  • Cucumber (95% water) – cucumbers consist almost entirely of water, but they also contain quite a few important nutrients, such as potassium, magnesium and vitamin K
  • Tomatoes (94% water) – not only do tomatoes contain plenty of water, along with vitamins and minerals, but they are also a great source of lycopene. This antioxidant protects the skin from sun damage, while reducing the amount of DNA damage your skin cells face
  • Watermelon (92% water) – just one cup of watermelon contains about half a cup of water, along with fiber and plenty of vitamins. It is also low in calories, making this a great fruit to snack on
  • Strawberries (91% water) – in addition to being extremely hydrating, strawberries are also packed with antioxidants that can help to protect your body from several types of cancer
  • Cantaloupe (90% water) – this melon is so hydrating, while also being a good source of vitamins. Just one cup of cantaloupe provides your body with 120% of your daily vitamin A requirements

Give Your Skin Some Time to Heal

If your sunburn is a second degree burn, then your skin will usually blister and peel as it heals.

What should you do if this happens?

Leave those blisters alone! Do not scratch, rub or pop them, as this will only increase your chances of developing an infection.

They may look unsightly, but your best bet would be to keep them moisturized and covered up with clothing. You definitely don’t want the sun coming into contact with this damaged skin any time soon. Go for fabrics that are tightly-woven, making sure that you cannot see any light when you hold the fabric up against bright light. If you can, then this means that the sun will still be able to reach your skin through your clothing.

Wondering if you should see a doctor about your sunburn?

If your blisters are covering a large part of your face or body, or if you are experiencing the symptoms of a severe sunburn (listed earlier), then you may want to see a doctor about this.

You probably want to know how long it will take for your sunburn to heal…

This really depends on the severity of the burn. Some sunburns heal in a couple of days, while others can take a couple of weeks for all signs of the burn to fade.

Protecting Your Skin from Future Sunburns

As mentioned above, the more sunburns you experience, the greater your chances of developing skin cancer. This is why it is so important to keep your skin protected from the sun as much as possible.

You likely already know that you should be wearing a sunscreen every day, but are you using the right SPF?

Generally, SPF 30 is advised, and this includes moisturizers infused with SPF, although you may require a higher SPF if your skin is particularly fair or sensitive.

You should also stay out of direct sunlight during the hottest hours of the day. These tend to be between 11am and 3pm, although these hours vary depending on your location. Basically, when the sun is directly above you, which is usually around midday, its UV rays are at their strongest.

Sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat can also help to give your face some extra protection from the sun’s damaging rays. This is important, because the skin on the face can be up to ten times thinner than the skin on the rest of the body, making it so much more susceptible to sun damage.  

Protective clothing is another must. Keep this loose and breathable, so your skin doesn’t get too hot.

Infographic on sun safety

Sunburns can be painful and uncomfortable, as well as dangerous in the long run. While protecting your skin from the sun is always the best way to go, following the above methods if you ever find yourself sunburned will help your skin to heal faster, preventing your sunburn from taking too much of a toll on your body.