While a healthy dose of vitamin D boosts everything from your mood to your immune system, If you notice your skin turning visibly pink, it's time to seek shade immediately. In fact, at this point, it might already be too late to avoid a sunburn. More than an uncomfortable buzz kill, sunburns can accelerate wrinkles, cause dark spots, and put you at serious risk for skin cancer. But sunburns happen, and when they do, you have to act fast to repair the integrity of your skin.
A first-degree sunburn is the most common type of sunburn and typically does not require medical care. These are superficial burns affecting the outer layer of the skin, causing redness, inflammation, and discomfort.
A second-degree sunburn causes damage to deeper layers of the skin and frequently causes blistering. Sometimes, second-degree sunburns warrant medical attention if the burn covers a large surface area of skin, the blisters are extensive and painful, or systemic symptoms like fever and fainting present.
Typically, you can safely treat first and second-degree burns, although you might want to consult with a board-certified dermatologist, to play it safe (more and more dermatologists offer virtual visits). If you notice any blistering or any symptoms beyond just your average sunburn, you should always see a board-certified dermatologist to evaluate if you need professional treatment. For at-home remedies to help accelerate the healing of first and second-degree burns, we spoke to Blair Murphy-Rose MD, FAAD, Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, and Mona Dan, LAc., MTOM, an herbalist and acupuncturist.
Garshick notes that you should be mindful of symptoms accompanying a sunburn and that "any individual with significant redness, pain, blisters or concerns for infection should seek prompt medical care." Note that sun poisoning can accompany sunburn and presents with fever, nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness or shortness of breath. "Physically, sun poisoning looks like redness," she says, "and can blister, peel and can cause pain or sensitivity of the skin."
For third and fourth-degree burns, it's imperative to seek medical attention.
Meet the Expert
- Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD specializes in general medical dermatology, is an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Cornell-New York Presbyterian Medical Center, and practices at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York.
- Blair Murphy-Rose MD, FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery who specializes in treating skin cancer as well as other skin conditions.
- Mona Dan, LAc., MTOM, is an herbalist and acupuncturist and the founder of Vie Healing.
Cool Skin Down
One of the best early remedies of first or second-degree sunburn is to chill out, the skin that is. Garshick recommends you cool the skin down "literally, by applying cool compresses or taking a cool shower." It can often help to take ibuprofen to help bring down inflammation. This can also offer relief from pain.
Repair the Skin’s Barrier
Sunburn compromises the skin barrier, depleting its moisture and leaving it inflamed and itchy. It's important to apply a gentle lotion "such as Cerave Moisturizing Cream or Vanicream Lite Lotion to hydrate and strengthen the skin barrier," says Garshick.
Delivering the right kind of moisture to skin can "reduce the risk of hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation (skin color changes) after peeling," adds Murphy-Rose. "Some of the best moisturizing and hydrating ingredients to look for include, hyaluronic acid and ceramides." Dan is a fan of organic, raw coconut oil, as "the fats soften the skin around the burn."
While a thicker moisturizing ointment can be a great option in the later stages when the skin is flaky and dry, you want to avoid a thick petroleum based ointment in that first 24 hours as it can trap the heat and make you feel more itchy or uncomfortable.
Try Some Hydrotherapy
A cool bath can do wonders to soothe inflamed skin, especially if you add apple cider vinegar. "Pour one cup of apple cider vinegar in a lukewarm bath and make sure your areas of burn are coated," says Dan.
Murphy-Rose suggests using a water-based mist spray. "Especially after being chilled in the fridge, this brings welcome relief to skin."
Apply a Little Tried and True Aloe Vera
A popular sunburn remedy is aloe vera, which Dan says is most effective in plant form. "Cut it open and apply directly to the skin."
Murphy-Rose adds that this go-to has "anti-inflammatory properties to soothe and calm your skin."
Spot-Treat With an OTC Hydrocortisone
Corticosteroids, or medications used to relieve swelling and itching, can also be helpful in safely treating first or second-degree burns. "An over-the-counter hydrocortisone may be helpful if there are any localized areas that are particularly itchy to help calm inflammation," says Garshick. On the other hand, she generally recommends avoiding topical pain relievers, such as topical lidocaine. "Although they may temporarily make the skin feel better, they can also have other ingredients that may lead to skin sensitivity."
Use a Gentle Cleanser
If you can, try washing your first or second-degree sunburn with only water in the early stages. "The areas that require a cleanser or soap are those where bacteria likes to thrive like underarms, groin and soles of feet, all areas that are far less commonly burned," says Murphy-Rose. When you do need to suds up, be sure to use a gentle cleanser.
"It is particularly important to avoid harsh cleansers and any tool that can be abrasive on the skin to avoid causing further injury to the skin," says Garshick. Put down the dry brush, and forget about using a scrub, or any type of exfoliator until skin is fully healed.
Avoid Touching or Peeling Your Burn
Peeling skin is tempting to pick. You want to avoid touching the skin as much as possible to prevent further trauma. "If a flake of skin has not shed off on its own, it is because part of that skin is still adhering to the underlying layer," explains Murphy-Rose. "By ripping or rubbing it off you disrupt that bond and cause further skin damage," she says. Be patient as your skin heals at its own rate. "I recommend allowing the shedding process to occur at its own speed and to work with your skin by moisturizing," says Murphy-Rose.
The superficial peeling process occurs naturally after skin inflammation, where the skin acts as a protective covering keeping pathogens out. If skin becomes infected, it can cause permanent scarring, which is why it's imperative to avoid picking a sunburn.
If You Have Blisters, Don't Pop Them (Whatever You Do)
If there are any blisters, avoid popping them at all costs. "Keeping the roof of the blister intact helps to prevent infection," says Garshick. "If you have a blister that is very uncomfortable, you can contact a board-certified dermatologist to see if anything can be done to help alleviate the discomfort of the blister and drain it in a sterilized manner to minimize risk of infection," she adds.
Open or crusted areas need to be kept covered with an ointment and bandage to protect the skin. "Keep in mind," says Garshick, "an adhesive can be irritating to the skin. Depending on the location of the lesion, you can just keep a piece of nonadhesive gauze over the area." If you are noticing any scabs, call you dermatologist as a prescription ointment may be necessary.
Cover Up with Loose UPF Clothes
It can be helpful to wear loose clothing to "avoid trapping heat," says Garshick. Aim for "breathable fabrics to minimize irritation on the skin." Or better yet, don duds with built-in sun protection. "Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and UPF50+ apparel clothing is better than SPF alone – especially to cover the areas that were sunburned when you do go out," Murphy-Rose advises.
Additionally, to prevent infection if blistering has occurred, "Make sure you burn is dressed properly when you are out and about," says Dan, "and allow the area to heal without any dressing when at home."
Stay Out of the Sun As Much as Possible
In order to minimize damage to your skin when healing a first or second-degree sunburn, you want to limit further sun exposure, which means staying in the shade during peak sun hours, (from 10 am to 2 pm). "Truthfully after developing a sunburn, especially a bad sunburn," says Murphy-Rose, "it is best to avoid the sun completely for the entire season."