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Anyone who's ever experienced sunburned skin will try almost anything to stop the itch, cool down the heat, and soothe the painful sting. But unfortunately, not just anything will work to treat the symptoms. When it comes to sunburn remedies, the internet is full of them. One you might have come across in your desperate search for relief is using essential oils for sunburn. But before you grab your eucalyptus tinctures, there are a few important things you should know about applying them on your raw, tender skin. Ahead, all the expert advice you need from board-certified dermatologists Jeanine Downie, MD, of Image Dermatology; Nava Greenfield, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group; and Suneel Chilukuri, MD, of Refresh Dermatology; as well as cosmetic chemist David Petrillo, founder of Perfect Image.
Type of ingredient: Plant extract
Main benefits: Potentially soothes the skin and relieves pain
Who should use it: In general, those who can tolerate fragrance and essential oils can use them to treat a sunburn. However, experts recommend first patch testing for tolerability to avoid sensitizing the skin.
How often can you use it: Downie and Greenfield recommend waiting until the burn is in the healing stage before applying any essential oils.
Works well with: Because of their potency and harsh fragrance, essential oils shouldn't be applied directly to sunburned skin without diluting first. The experts recommend mixing the essential oils with a carrier oil, like coconut oil, or within a cooling gel or ointment.
Don't use with: When treating a sunburn, avoid other ingredients that could further irritate the skin.
What Are Essential Oils?
An essential oil is the substance that's extracted from the different parts of a plant, like the flowers and leaves. They're often used in aromatherapy, but they're also commonly used for beauty purposes, such as hair growth and to treat acne. Because of the many ingredients and nutrients found in a variety of essential oils, Petrillo says essential oils could be viable options for treating sunburns—but there's a catch. "Most essential oils contain fragrance and other properties that could irritate a burn or exacerbate other skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, or contact dermatitis," Petrillo says.
Benefits of Essential Oils for Sunburn
According to Petrillo, there have been a few studies to test the efficacy of essential oils to treat burns, but not enough large-scale human studies have been conducted to confirm their benefits; however, there are properties within essential oils that could potentially treat or reduce symptoms of sunburn.
- Relieve pain: According to Petrillo, peppermint is viable for someone who has a moderate to severe sunburn and is looking to feel relief from the burning sensation. "Menthol, its most potent ingredient, creates a pain-relieving effect on sunburns by stimulating cold receptors on your skin and narrowing inflamed blood vessels, dilating when exposed to the sun," Petrillo explains. "However, one thing to note with peppermint oil is that it's shown to cause minor skin irritation and redness."
- Ease discomfort: Petrillo says eucalyptus has similar properties to peppermint oil and could potentially help relieve some of the pain, irritation, and other discomforts of sunburns.
- Soothe the skin: Petrillo adds that when applied directly to the skin, chamomile can alleviate pain and discomfort as well as soothe the skin.
- Some have anti-viral or anti-fungal properties: Chilukuri says tea tree oil might also help because not only is it anti-inflammatory, but it’s also antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral. Because everyone carries some staph on their skin, Chilukuri explains that when you have a break in the skin, the staph can go in that break and lead to an infection. For that reason, Chilukuri says something that’s microbial or anti-inflammatory could be beneficial for a sunburn.
Side Effects of Essential Oils
While the benefits of essential oils might be unclear, the side effects are much more well-known. "If you use a scented oil, you have to hope the person can tolerate the scent," Downie explains. "If they can’t, you’re going to make your sunburn worse by giving them a sunburn and then a contact dermatitis, which is almost like you’re giving them a sunburn and then a chemical burn."
Chilukuri adds, "When you have a break in the skin, I’m worried that any of these essential oils can be a little bit more irritating and cause more of an allergic reaction."
According to Greenfield, anyone with sensitive skin should avoid using essential oils as well as those who have more than a first-degree burn from the sun. "Don’t apply it to skin that has an abrasion or open sores or blisters," Greenfield advises. "Don’t apply it to skin that is very red and painful. It can cause an irritant reaction on these conditions and cause more harm than good."
Both Downie and Greenfield recommend waiting until the healing stage of the burn if you're going to use essential oils. And before you do, all of the experts suggest first testing the ingredient for skin tolerability by applying a little bit behind your ear or on the back of your hand and taking note of how your skin reacts. "You want to make sure that they’re not going to sensitize the skin," Chilukuri says.
How to Use It
According to Petrillo, essential oils shouldn't be applied directly to sunburned skin without any type of dilution because of their potency and harsh fragrance. Instead, dilute it first in a carrier oil, like coconut oil, or with a cooling aloe gel to make it less potent and less likely to cause irritation. To do so, mix a few drops of this oil with an unscented lotion, carrier oil, cooling gel, or ointment, and apply it to the skin.
What to Use Instead of Essential Oils
According to Petrillo, most experts will also often err on the side of caution and recommend bland moisturizers and cooling gels to alleviate sunburns over essential oils. Petrillo also recommends non-fragrant oils, like coconut oil, cocoa butter, jojoba oil, and sunflower seed oil, which are frequently thought to be safe and non-irritating. These plant-based oil alternatives can also be used as carrier oils for the essential oils if you do choose to use them.
Greenfield agrees that non-fragranced products that are gentle are preferable and adds avocado oil (a non-fragrant oil), aloe vera (to soothe the skin), and a thick petroleum base (to help the damaged skin heal its barrier) to the list of alternative sunburn treatments.
Chilukuri recommends applying a steroid cream underneath the petroleum base for the first two to four days after a sunburn.
Downie's favorite oil for soothing a sunburn is not an essential oil. Instead, Downie recommends Theraplex Clear Emollient Lotion ($19), which is hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, and good for all skin types.