How to Treat Sunburn

Getting Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Swim goggles and aloe vera gel are great beach supplies. Let's just hope that suntan lotion has a decent SPF rating -- or else you could be looking at a sunburn. See more pictures of getting beautiful skin.
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Ouch! You've just enjoyed a little beach time on your day off. Or maybe you spent the day skiing - and since it was a cloudy day, you figured you didn't need sunscreen. But when you touch your red skin, you remember that you should have used some.

Don't be fooled by clouds. You can get sunburn on sunny days or cloudy days, and if you're outside all day, one application won't be enough -- even if you're not in the water.


You know sunburn can hurt, but what causes it? If you're outside, your sunburn is caused by the sun's UV (ultraviolet) rays. UV rays are wavelengths of sunlight too short for humans to see. The sun emits three kinds of rays. Two of them -- UVA and UVB -- cause sunburn. UVA rays can age your skin on top of causing burns.

The sun isn't the only source of harmful UV rays. Tanning bed lamps can also cause harm and sunburn. The truth is, there's really no safe way to expose your sun to UV rays. And sunburn isn't always easy to treat or relieve.

When treating sunburn, you can make your own remedies at home or buy products at the store. But you might be wondering what combination is the most effective, or if there's anything that can prevent peeling. What should you do if you develop blisters, get a fever or start to vomit? You'll learn the answer to these and other questions in this article.

If you're in pain now, your concern is most likely how to get relief -- and fast! Click to the next section to find out which sunburn treatment products work best.


Products that Treat Sunburn

Chances are you have products to ease your sunburn pain in at least two places in your house: the medicine cabinet and the kitchen. The nonprescription medications in your medicine cabinet can help relieve the discomfort of sunburn, headache and fever. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin are all good choices. If the pain is severe and your fever remains high, call your doctor. Remember, if you're treating a child, use aspirin only with a doctor's approval.

You also can apply an aloe vera gel or lotion several times a day to relieve pain and keep your skin moist. A spray-on product will be the easiest to apply. Avoid heavy creams that require rubbing the skin a lot, which can cause irritation and likely be hard to do because of the pain.


Over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams will help relieve the inflammation and irritation caused by sunburn. Don't treat sunburn with "-caine" products like benzocaine or lidocaine -- these products can irritate your skin because the chemicals in them can cause allergies. Medical experts also recommend that you avoid petroleum jelly.

Next, head to your kitchen. Wrap ice or a bag of frozen peas in a damp towel for some fast relief. Chilled cucumber or potato slices, or even plain yogurt, can also feel soothing. A cool bath made with about a half cup (125 mL) of oatmeal, cornstarch or baking soda will bring down your skin temperature and help relieve itchy, irritated skin. Repeat as needed, but don't use soap, which will cause more irritation. Pat your skin dry instead of rubbing it. Adding about a cup of vinegar (250 mL) to a cool bath also helps reduce pain. Some people claim that putting a few tea bags into the bath also helps. Another option is to place the cold, wet tea bags directly on your sunburned skin. Be sure to moisturize after these treatments.

Home remedies can get you through the initial discomfort of sunburn, but what should you do when blisters appear? Go to the next section to find out.


Prevent Peeling From a Sunburn

Unfortunately, you can't prevent peeling, which is actually a good thing because peeling is the body's way to get rid of skin damaged by sunburn. When peeling begins, keep moisturizing your skin. You can also apply an antiseptic cream to ward off the risk of infection.

Blistering signals second-degree sunburn. If blistering isn't extensive and appears to be healing without complications, it can be treated with home and over-the-counter remedies. Don't be tempted to break sunburn blisters -- even with a sterilized needle. Blisters shouldn't deliberately be broken because the serum inside the blister helps the healing process. Breaking a blister can make it more painful, slow healing and bring an increased risk of infection.


Some of your blisters will likely break on their own. When they do, make sure you wash your hands before you touch them to avoid introducing bacteria to the area. Don't peel or remove the flap of skin from a broken blister - and, if possible, keep the skin underneath covered with the flap of skin.

If blisters (or other sunburned areas) hurt when clothing touches them, you can loosely bandage the area with a layer of gauze. Be careful that the tape doesn't stick to the blisters or to other sunburned areas, and that it isn't wrapped too tightly and cuts off circulation. Wear only lightweight clothing and experiment with different fabrics to see what's the most comfortable.

If you experience extensive blistering, seek medical attention. Signs that blisters from sunburn aren't healing properly include pus (yellow drainage) from a blister that has opened, and red streaks leading away from an opened blister.

Now that you've read and learned about how to treat peeling and blisters, move on to the next page for other helpful sunburn strategies.


Tips for Treating Sunburn

One of the quickest and cheapest ways to obtain sunburn relief is to immerse a T-shirt or towel in cool water, wring it out and place it on the affected area. Then sit or lie in front of a fan or air conditioner.

Cool water not only feels great on sunburned skin but is also important for hydration. Sunburned skin is inflamed and hot. Your body loses fluid through your skin because of your sunburn. Drinking lots of water is another good idea, as it will prevent dehydration.


Don't let your guard down after you've taken your pain relievers, bathed in an oatmeal or vinegar bath, and finally gotten past the worst of the discomfort. It is possible to get a burn on top of a burn. Until your sunburn is completely healed, cover it and stay out of the sun. Follow these basic rules to protect yourself from sunburn:

  • Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Wear a broad-brimmed hat and tightly woven, yet loose-fitting, clothing.
  • Use sunscreen early (15-30 minutes before sun exposure), often and liberally.
  • Wear sunglasses that block at least 99 percent of UV rays.

To learn more about how to prevent and treat sunburn, look over the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Facts About Sunscreens." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Better Health Channel. "Sunburn." December 2008. (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Gibson, Lawrence E., M.D. "Sunburn Treatment: What Works?" Mayo Clinic. (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Life & Style Section, The State. "How to Treat a Sunburn." July 21, 2009. (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Sunburn." May 19, 2009. (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Mother Nature. "Sunburn." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Nissl, Jan. WebMD. "Sunburn -- Home Treatment." Dec. 28, 2007. (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Nissl, Jan. WebMD. "Sunburn -- Topic Overview." Dec. 28, 2007. (Accessed 7/28/2009)
  • Noel, Sara. "Homespun Ways to Treat Sunburn." Frugal Village. July 10, 2009. (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Prevention Magazine. "Sunburn Home Remedies: Be Careful With Blisters." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Schar, Douglas. "Sunburn First-Aid Kit." Prevention. Nov. 11, 2004. (Accessed 7/28/09) kit/97aa88dc78803110VgnVCM10000013281eac____/