What exactly IS a sunburn? Is it really possible to make the pain and redness and embarrassment go away? Yes, it most certainly is…
So you had a little too much fun in the sun and now you’re paying the price to the tune of hot, itchy, red skin? No judgement — we’ve all been there. And hopefully, the discomfort you’re dealing with will serve as a nice reminder for next time to never skimp on SPF. But, in the meantime, there’s no reason to drive yourself crazy waiting for the sting to subside and your skin to inevitably start peeling. While you can’t get rid of a sunburn over night, there are ways to lessen whatever pain you may be feeling, bring down the redness (and possible swelling if it’s really bad), and make sure you body doesn’t turn into one giant sheet of dead skin.
First, the basics:
What is a sunburn anyway?
Simply put, it’s the skin’s response to UV exposure, an alarm bell that indicates damage. When your skin turns red, that’s the body’s inflammatory response; your skin cells are in trouble and need repairing and protecting, so your blood vessels dilate, your skin starts to lose its moisture (hence that tight feeling), skin cells thicken and melanin is produced in order to stop UV rays from getting any deeper or damaging your cells’ DNA.
What are the steps to treating a sunburn?
GET OUT OF THE SUN! Seriously. The minute you realize you’ve got a sunburn, get inside or under a large umbrella or find a shawl to throw over your body or cocoon yourself in a sleeping bag and hop around. Whatever it is, remove sun from the equation. Don’t convince yourself that “the damage has already been done.” While it’s true some damage has already been done, staying in the sun’s path can and will do more damage. Don’t give it the chance.
Once you’re safely out of UV reach, hydrate. When your body is overheated and your skin cells respond to UV exposure, you lose a lot of fluid so it’s important to rehydrate early and often. Speaking of water, you’ll also want to hop in the shower (at least lukewarm water — never hot!) to cool off and lower your body temperature. A shower will also help get rid of any sunscreen, sweat, sand, and saltwater/pool water that may be clinging to your skin. (Please please please use your hands to apply a gentle, hydrating body wash and avoid scratchy loofahs or harsh washes at all costs.) Alternatively, hop into a cool bath and add some milk and/or oatmeal, both of which will help reduce inflammation and redness. When you’re done, gently blot your skin dry—no rubbing!
If you’re still feeling swollen and uncomfortable after a shower, head to the freezer. An ice pack or a cold, damp compress applied to the burn will further reduce swelling and the temperature of your skin. (My favorite trick is to soak a clean washcloth in water and stick it in the freezer for 10 minutes before letting it works its magic. It’s basically a popsicle for your sunburn.)
Now that your skin is clean, add a topical treatment to the mix. Unlike with standard dry skin, you want to steer clear of thick, oil-based products like butters and balms as they can lock heat into your skin, preventing it from properly cooling down. Your burn will be much better served by lightweight products specifically formulated for after-sun skincare as they’ll contain ingredients like pure aloe vera, vitamin E, lavender, licorice, algea, hyaluronic acid and cucumber to reduce pain and redness, repair damage and rehydrate skin.
Then, keep applying. And applying. And applying. And whatever you do, DO NOT PICK AT PEELING SKIN. As annoying (and kinda gross) as peeling skin can be, it’s part of the natural healing process after a sunburn. If you pick at it, you risk causing scars and further irritation. So hands off!
And finally, be more careful next time.
Whether it’s a stroll around the block or a day at the beach, a healthy application of sunscreen is always welcome.
+ Want to take post-sun care a step further? Check out this article on foods that fight sunburns!