So you got burnt.
It happens, even if you know full and well how to prevent it. We’re not here to harp on what you should have done. Instead, let’s lessen the pain and focus on how to heal your skin quickly and safely. There are a lot of rumors about what works and what doesn’t, but you should only take advice from a professional. That’s why we summoned the wisdom of Dr. David Lortscher, board-certified dermatologist, as well as the CEO and co-founder of Curology. We quizzed him on the best ways to treat sunburns, both immediately after exposure and in the days and weeks that follow.
Here is his advice.
Immediately After the Burn
If you’ve just been sunburned, it’s important to quickly cool and rinse the affected area. Lortscher advises taking a long, cool shower, or running any isolated burns under cool water for 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can apply a cool compress to the area, but should absolutely avoid ice, since it can further injure the skin with frostbite. (Oh, the irony.)
Since sunburns can cause dehydration, Lortscher also stresses that you drink lots of water following overexposure. (And following any bout with the sun, not just in response to burns.)
In the Hours and Days Following the Burn
Spot-check with hydrocortisone:
If you are experiencing higher discomfort in some areas, Lortscher suggests using a non-prescription hydrocortisone cream, with an added warning: “It is important to remember that, because topical steroids can cause skin-thinning and acne-like bumps, it’s best to not use them (especially on the face) for more than 3 to 4 days. It may be tempting to use a topical pain reliever, but we recommend avoiding ‘-caine’ products (such as benzocaine), as these may irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction.”
Avoid thick, oily moisturizers:
While it may seem wise to layer some thick, toxin-shielding lotion atop the affected area, Lotscher says it might only worsen the problem. “Oils [in these moisturizers] tend to seal off the burn from the surrounding air, trapping in heat and causing the skin to continue to feel like it’s burning,” he says. It’s completely counterproductive.
Instead, he tells his patients to pick moisturizers with ingredients that boost and preserve the moisture barrier in the skin, like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, aloe vera, or soy. “Aloe is well known for its skin-soothing, anti-inflammatory, and wound-healing properties,” Lortscher says. “While soy contains a variety of active components which help restore barrier function and replenish moisture, provide antioxidant activity, and smooth and soften skin.”
Take it easy in the shower:
Your body cleanser should be a gentle, unscented one. Lortscher says to cleanse with cool water on a low pressure, sticking with this mild cleanser until your skin recovers and follow with your cooling moisturizer.
While the Skin Peels
Refrain from using any body scrubs or exfoliators to brush off the dead skin, Lortscher advises. “The destroyed skin cells slough off on their own, which we see as peeling. Sunburned skin begins healing by itself within several days, but complete healing may take weeks. After burned skin peels, the newly exposed layers are usually lighter in color as the more superficial tanned skin calls have been shed; these areas are more sensitive to sunlight and must be diligently protected for several weeks.”
If you insist on returning to the sun, do so only once the burn has subsided. Shield skin with SPF 50 in the weeks that follow, downgrading only to SPF 30 as desired—but only once the skin has healed. Most importantly, avoid using chemical sunscreens since they may irritate skin further. Instead, Lortscher suggests using physical/mineral sunscreens. Look for active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which he says are non-comedogenic and safe to use on skin.
Additionally, let any blisters break on their own. Lortscher says they do not need to be popped and drained.
After the Skin Has Healed
Once your skin is back in business, Lortscher says to stick with a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or greater, and ideally a mineral one. Be sure to apply it properly and often: “To ensure that you get the full SPF of a sunscreen, you need to apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside,” he says. “Studies show that most people apply only half to a quarter of that amount, which means the actual SPF they have on their body is lower than advertised. During a long day at the beach, one person should use around one half to one-quarter of an 8-ounce bottle.”
He says to practice sun avoidance techniques, too, like avoiding peak midday hours, resting in the shade, and wearing protective clothing or eyewear.
If you’re worried about your body’s anti-aging defenses, due to overexposure, then Lortscher suggests taking a Polypodium leucotomos supplement. “It’s an extract of a fern found in Central and South America used for centuries to treat skin disorders,” Lortscher says. “This provides antioxidants, which help to combat the free radicals produced during sun exposure, decreasing sunburn response and helping to combat any sun damage that occurs. Take a capsule every day, increasing to two capsules on days with more sun exposure.”
The Doctor’s Warning
Lortscher can’t impart all this advice without one final imperative: If your burn is severe, seek help immediately. “If you have an extensive blistering sunburn, severe pain, or symptoms such as fever, headache, vomiting or dehydration, seek medical care without delay,” he says.