Nothing kills summer fun faster than a painful sunburn. Of course, the best treatment is prevention, notes board-certified dermatologist Marthe Dika, MD. "Most importantly, protection with sunscreens, when used properly, prevents burning even in fair-skinned individuals," says Dika. While we can all agree on the importance of sun protection, there are still those occasions when excess sunshine gets the better of us. Whether you neglected to pack sunscreen on your last vacation or forgot that sunburn can happen all year round, there are a few things you can do to expedite the healing process—all with supplies you likely have on hand.
We spoke with Dika and dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, for nine of the best home remedies for sunburn.
Meet the Expert
- Marthe Dika, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in skin cancer prevention and treatment as well as the management of conditions like acne and eczema. She practices at the Franklin, Wisconsin, office of Forefront Dermatology.
- Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills, California, who is in private practice at SkinSafe Dermatology and Skin Care.
Apply Aloe Vera
This is one of the most well-known home remedies for a sunburn, and with good reason. Aloe vera soothes and restores damaged skin and can be used for both fresh sunburns and skin that is peeling. Be sure to avoid aloe vera gels that include alcohol and dyes since these can dry out skin.
Try to get a pure aloe vera gel, though, as some additives can cause irritation. "If you use commercially prepared products, look for ones without alcohol to minimize stinging," says Shainhouse, who adds that aloe should be tested on a small piece of skin first, as it can cause allergic contact dermatitis.
Store aloe vera in the fridge to increase its natural cooling sensation.
Soak a Washcloth in Tea or Milk
We’re all familiar with the health benefits of drinking tea, but it turns out to be good for external applications as well. "Black tea works best, but green tea can help, too," says Shainhouse. Black tea may be most effective on account of its tannic acid content, which helps to naturally restore skin’s pH balance. Brew a pot of tea with two to four tea bags and then allow it to steep and cool completely before applying to skin with a washcloth.
Cold milk can also be soothing on sunburned skin. "The lactic acid can help exfoliate the peeling skin," notes Shainhouse. Apply it the same way you would the tea: with a washcloth.
Customize a Soothing Bath
Another natural pH fix is provided by apple cider vinegar. This potent ingredient balances the acidity and alkalinity of sunburned skin and supports the natural healing process. But for a sunburn, it's best to apply it topically—or use it as a soak. Add two cups to a warm bath and soak for 15 minutes.
Cool Things Down with a Cold Compress
"Sunburn is best treated with cool, wet compresses," says Dika. Shainhouse agrees, adding compresses can help reduce the stinging sensation often associated with a burn. For immediate sunburn relief, shield the skin from direct contact with ice (which can actually damage the tissue) and avoid using abrasive materials. Keep your cloth clean and dry to avoid skin irritation.
Products formulated with lidocaine can also help keep the affected area cool, notes Dika. "Topical anesthetic preparations containing lidocaine provide some relief," she says. Preparations containing benzocaine, however, "should be avoided, as it’s a sensitizer."
Bring On the Botanicals
Natural botanicals like chamomile and lavender can help soothe the sensations of stinging and soreness that come with sunburned skin. Add a touch of essential oil to a bath drawn with cool water. Natural peppermint can also have a cooling effect.
If you're not keen on oils, use a gentle moisturizer formulated with healing botanicals. "Consider ingredients like coconut and shea butter to moisturize and ingredients like ceramides to help repair the broken skin barrier," says Shainhouse.
While it may sound obvious, one of the most effective home remedies for a sunburn is to drink plenty of water. Drinking water won't ward off sunburn, of course, but it can help skin stay healthy all-around, as it keeps skin producing hyaluronic acid, which helps skin stay plump.
By staying hydrated—in conjunction with the methods above—you’ll help expedite your body’s healing process. Burns draw water toward the skin, meaning the rest of the body needs it more than ever. Thanks to its high levels of electrolytes, coconut water is a good choice to hydrate after a day in the sun, as it helps combat fatigue.
Take an Anti-Inflammatory
If you've just come out of the sun and can sense a burn coming on, Shainhouse advises "taking an anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen or aspirin, immediately and repeating every six hours to help reduce the pain and redness. Remember to eat something first to prevent stomach irritation."
Anti-inflammatories will help with the pain that accompanies a burn, but they'll also help with overall swelling.
It might not be the first step if you're dealing with a sunburn but, once the skin has started the healing process, you'll want to slough the old skin off. "If your skin can tolerate mild exfoliation, look for lotions with hydroxyacids, like ammonium lactate, to gently remove the scales," says Shainhouse. Choose your product wisely, as some exfoliants contain ingredients that are far too harsh for tender skin.
Be careful to only exfoliate skin that's no longer red. Exfoliating too soon in the healing process (or peeling skin off manually, rather than allowing it to flake off on its own) could only intensify the pain and redness.
Apply Hydrocortisone Cream
Though most often equated with treating bug bites, hydrocortisone cream can also work wonders on burns. As its active ingredient is a steroid, the cream works to reduce inflammation on contact.
"Apply a thin layer of hydrocortisone cream (I recommend Cortaid 1 percent hydrocortisone cream) two to three times a day to reduce the redness and inflammation in the skin," says Shainhouse.