Physical Health, Tips & Techniques, Wellness / Self-Care

9-step guide to Heal and Treat a Sunburn


words by: Adam Hurly
Jul 21, 2022

So you got a sunburn, despite your best efforts — or because you forgot sunscreen. Oops. No sense dwelling on what you could have or should have done to prevent this; instead, you need to spend your energy on treating and healing the sunburn, in order to minimize the pain, damage, and recovery time. And guess what? It starts as soon as you get inside, whether or not you’ve turned into a blister yet.


Here is our advice on how to treat — and then heal — a sunburn as quickly and effectively as possible.


1. Start with a cool shower or bath

You’ll want to take a cool or lukewarm shower (or bath) as soon as you get in from outside — and frequently throughout your recovery. You want to avoid hot, drying water, and intense water pressure, and you also need to keep your body rinsed clear of things like sea water, chlorine, sweat, and more. Use a cleanser designated for sensitive skin (Like Dove’s unscented bar soap for sensitive skin).


2. Hydrate skin

After you get out of the shower or bath, towel yourself off gently, but make sure to maintain a slight amount of moisture on the skin, because you’ll want to “trap” this moisture inside the skin with a layer of moisturizer (for body, face, and anywhere that you’re burnt; just make sure to use a product designated for the face on your mug, since a body moisturizer can cause breakouts, excess sweating, and more).


Keep you skin thoroughly hydrated throughout the recovery, and take extra care before bed, especially if you sleep in an air-conditioned room, since that can parch your skin far worse. (Simply lather on an extra layer before bed—or a denser layer than what you wear by day).


3. Prioritize aloe, oatmeal, soy, and other soothing ingredients

There’s nothing more instantly soothing on a sunburn than a layer of aloe vera gel. (You were anticipating this tip, we know it.) Whether your moisturizer of choice includes this and other soothing ingredients (like oatmeal, soy, chamomile, and more) is up to you, so long as you get a dose of them at some point, and often. Aloe is the clear favorite, though—and most of us already know that.


4. Take an NSAID (like ibuprofen)

For all-over pain relief, keep a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen or aspirin at the ready. Take it as soon as you get in from the sun, to minimize swelling and redness. Don’t overdo it, but note that these painkillers could be the difference between a good night’s sleep and restless one of tossing and turning. Also, note that Tylenol is not an NSAID, as it does not treat inflammation.


5. Avoid topical cortisones

As tempting as it may be to apply a numbing cream or ointment to the skin, don’t do it! These can irritate a sunburn and cause an entirely new skincare rash. Leave the topical soothing to the aloe veras of the world, and get an internal boost from an NSAID like ibuprofen or Advil.


6. Stay hydrated

Water intake is essential no matter the scenario, but especially when your body is recovering and healing. And in the case of a sunburn, the injury also further dehydrates the body due to a damaged skin barrier. So, stay hydrated throughout the rebound—and as a reminder of a previous tip, keep your skin hydrated, too!


7. Wear loose, opaque clothing

You want to shield your skin from the elements during this rebound, which means obscuring it from any sunlight or friction. For this reason, it’s important to wear loose-fitting clothing, but opaque (non-see-thru) clothing at that.


8. Avoid the sun until your burn heals

And to that same note, you need to avoid direct sunlight on the wound until it recovers. Once it does, lather on that SPF 30+ again, please. For your own good!


9. Don’t pop any blisters

If the burn is moderate or severe, then you may experience blistering. If this is the case, then seek medical help from your primary physician or dermatologist, and do not touch or pop the blisters. They are the body’s response to the burn, and can help prevent infection while expediting healing. Popping them can slow and hinder that recovery, and possibly even encourage scarring.


A lesson for next time

As for the next venture under the sun: Read up on our beach-day skincare (even if your sunny venture involves no beach whatsoever). Those UV rays can cause long-term, irreversible damage to your skin, leading to premature signs of aging, loss of resilience and barrier function, discoloration, and even skin cancer. Sun burns are no joke—so lather on the SPF 30+!


Photo via Getty