The Right Way to Deal With That Terrible Sunburn You Got Yesterday

Updated 05/19/19
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You slathered on your go-to sunscreen, donned your fave wide-brim hat, and even made sure you reapplied throughout the day—yet somehow you were still left with a nasty burn. It happens to the best of us, even when we think we're being diligent. "Sunscreens wear off from both direct light and from oils produced on the skin," notes celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau. "This is why many people experience sunburns on their nose. Of all the areas on the face, the nose has the largest pores due to oil production. When the nose becomes oily, sunscreens break down, and the oil attracts UV rays." This is why it's important to reapply every hour.

But while it can be frustrating, painful, and even a little scary to see your skin turn an angry shade of lobster before your eyes, try not to panic: There's a certain protocol you can (and should) follow to lessen the pain and damage of your sunburn and to prevent less-than-ideal side effects like peeling. On the flip side, there are products and steps that might seem like a good idea for relief but can worsen the burn. (Spoiler alert: Skip the petroleum jelly.)

Keep reading to see how to handle a sunburn (and what to avoid).

Even if you just have an inkling that you might be overdoing it in the sun, job number one is to get in the shade (or ideally, indoors) immediately. Burns can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to develop, so waiting for visible symptoms is a bad idea. (And if you do already see some redness, hustle.) Remember that sunburns are first-degree burns to your skin—they're injuries and should be treated as such.

DO try to lower your body temperature

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"With a sunburn, the goal is to decrease pain and remove heat from within the skin," says Rouleau. If it's just on your face, try a cooling gel mask for immediate relief. Burned elsewhere? More on that in a minute.

DON'T take a hot shower

Not only will it feel rather unpleasant, but exposing your skin to scalding temperatures can actually worsen the burn.

DO take a lukewarm bath

This is an extremely effective (and immediate) way to lower your body temperature, plus it's soothing on your angry skin.

DO stay hydrated

If you've been spending time outside in the summer heat, drinking plenty of water is always a good idea. But H2O also absorbs heat, making it a really easy method for lowering your body temperature. Plus, it'll be easier for your skin to start the healing process if it's well-hydrated.

DO take an anti-inflammatory

Pop an Advil or arnica pills to reduce pain and inflammation in one go, from the inside out.

DON'T slather on petroleum jelly

You might be inclined to reach for it since it's so soothing for other skin conditions, but petrolatum, the active ingredient, will actually trap in heat and could advance the burn further. The same goes for benzocaine, lidocaine, and butter.

DO soothe your skin with milk or yogurt

However, just because you shouldn't use butter, it doesn't mean you should avoid all dairy products. "If you don't have a gel mask, apply cold, plain yogurt," suggest Rouleau. "It's anti-inflammatory, so it will help to reduce heat and irritation. Apply, let dry for 15 minutes, and rinse. Repeat every hour as needed." Another remedy straight from your fridge: Pour six cups of milk into your lukewarm bath for an extra-soothing boost.

DON'T use any products with synthetic ingredients or fragrances

Additives can irritate your already fragile skin, preventing it from healing properly and causing discomfort to boot.

DO moisturize

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Your skin could definitely use the extra nourishment—just reach for a lotion or oil with a short, clean ingredient list. This oil from Bottega Organica is specially formulated to soothe and repair burned skin, thanks to calming, cooling ingredients like lavender and peppermint.

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You also have the option to use a dedicated sun recovery product, like this one from Tropic Labs. It contains Seaberry Seed Oil, Tamanu Oil, and Murumuru Butter, which, combined, make it an effective anti-inflammatory and healing treatment. It's definitely good to have on hand for those times regular lotion or oil isn't enough.

DON'T use any acids or peels

Your skin is raw and sensitive as it is, and chances are, it will peel on its own over the next few days. Make sure it's completely healed before trying any aggressive treatments, which will more than likely irritate it further.

DO give your skin plenty of antioxidants

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"Because sunburn is the sign of free radical–induced inflammation and skin damage, it may help to lessen the damage that is occurring deep within the skin and encourage repair," says Rouleau. "Try a soothing, vitamin-packed skin oil."

DON'T peel your skin yourself

Resist the urge! Don't scrub, and whatever you do, don't peel—just let your skin do its thing. It's gross, but stick it out for a few days.

DO see a doctor if you notice any extreme symptoms

Blistering, fever, and chills can indicate that it's much more serious than the average sunburn. Don't wait it out—it's better to err on the side of caution, and consult a doctor immediately.

Want to prevent burns from happening in the first place? Make sure you're applying SPF to these oft-neglected spots.

This post was originally published on May 30, 2017.

Updated by Carolyn Hanson

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