How to Moisturize When You've Got a Sunburn

Getting Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Yow! No matter where you're sunburned, it's a good idea to take extra care of your skin. That includes keeping it moisturized. See pictures of ways to get beautiful skin.
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When your skin is exposed to the sun's rays, it absorbs the radiation that light carries with it. Sunlight that reaches us here on Earth consists of ultraviolet (UV) A and B radiation. UVA waves account for about 95 percent of the sun's radiation on the planet. It has the longest wavelength of the sun's UV rays and can penetrate the protective outer epidermal layers to the dermis, where new skin cells are created. UVB rays are generally absorbed by the epidermal layers.

Although UVB radiation is more potent than UVA radiation, it doesn't penetrate as deeply. What's more, it also reflects easily off surfaces like snow or metal, allowing it to be absorbed by the skin twice. Once they penetrate the skin, researchers believe both UVA and UVB radiation alter the DNA of the skin cells they touch, which leads to skin cancer. These mutations affect cell functioning and controlled growth among skin cells, which can cause tumors.


Both UVA and UVB radiation also create another reaction in skin layers, melanin production. Melanocytes, or melanin-producing skin cells, increase the production of melanin when the skin is assaulted by UV rays. This pigment is responsible for tanned skin, but its role is to absorb and diffuse UVA and UVB radiation on the cellular level.

Melanin can't absorb all radiation that penetrates skin, however, and eventually another process takes over -- sunburn. Within a few hours of overexposure to the sun's rays, sunburned skin will become reddish, painful, warm and swollen. Blisters may form and bad enough sunburn can also trigger headaches and nausea.

As sunburns heal, another standard characteristic emerges: dry, flaky skin. Some of the best home remedies to treat sunburn are moisturizers. But with painful and inflamed skin, exactly how should you keep your sunburn moisturized? Read the next page to find out.


Moisturizing Your Sunburn

Keep a sunburn as moist as possible. There are some ingredients you'll want to look for in a good moisturizer and some you'll want to avoid.
© iStockphoto/apomares

One of the effects of sunburn is a drying of the skin. Ultraviolet radiation depletes the skin of antioxidants, which allows for peroxidation -- a deterioration of lipids in the skin. Lipids are fatty acids that serve as the binding between the dead skin cells that form the outermost layer of the skin, or the horny layer. Together, the lipids and dead skin cells produce a waterproof barrier that maintains moisture in the skin.

When lipids are destroyed as the result of overexposure to the sun and cause sunburn, skin experiences a pronounced loss of moisture. In other words, it's more important than ever to moisturize skin when you have sunburn. Keep your skin as moisturized as possible to aid in its recovery; apply moisturizer as often as possible. Be sure you have the proper moisturizer, however. There are some types of moisturizing agents that can help restore skin to its natural state more quickly that you might want to look for.


Chief among these are humectants. A humectant is any kind of hygroscopic substance -- one that not only maintains moisture, it strips it from the surrounding air. Aloe vera is a naturally occurring humectant that has the added bonus of soothing warm, sunburned skin. Other examples of natural humectants include alpha hydroxides like lactic acid, oils derived from plants and animals and even honey. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) hasten the process by which skin cells are sloughed off and replaced, which can speed up the healing process for sunburns. Be careful not to use too potent an AHA, however, as it could exfoliate skin too harshly.

Most moisturizers contain humectants and many also contain emollients. You may want to avoid moisturizers that contain emollients when you have a sunburn, as one of the common reactions to emollients is a mild skin irritation, which isn't something you want on top of a sunburn [source: DermNet NZ].

Because of the possibility of an adverse reaction, periods when you have sunburn aren't good times to be adventurous in testing out new moisturizers. If you already have a tried and true moisturizer you swear by, stick to that; it should do the trick. Going for a moisturizer that has as few ingredients as possible is also a good idea.

Vitamin A and E oils make excellent moisturizers, since they're packed with nutrients skin needs to function in a healthy manner. Be careful what vehicles these A and E moisturizers use to deliver the nutrients, however. Look for plant derived oils, like coconut, avocado or almond oil. Avoid mineral oils bases, as the petroleum can actually prevent absorption of the vitamins.

There's also an often overlooked product you can find anywhere that can help moisturize sunburns: Noxzema. The cold cream and makeup remover was originally developed as a sunburn remedy and still works well as a moisturizer and cooling agent for bad burns.

Treat your skin with extra attention and moisture, and you'll find your sunburn leaves much less of a mark and will heal much more quickly.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Cosmeceutical facts and your skin." Accessed December 17, 2009.
  • DermNet NZ. "Emollients and moisturizers (moisturizers)." Accessed December 16, 2009.
  • Mayo Clinic. "Sunburn." May 19, 2009.
  • Merck. "Sunlight and skin damage." August 2007.
  • Skin Cancer Foundation. "Understanding UVA and UVB."