How to treat a sunburn: Dermatologists share their best advice

Experts give tips on sunburn relief.

Dermatologists explain the best way to treat a sunburn. (Getty Images)
Dermatologists explain the best way to treat a sunburn. (Getty Images)

If you were reveling in beach time, a desert hike or just a sunny backyard hang and got some painfully red skin to show for it, try not to beat yourself up too much — sunburn happens to the best of us. A sunburn is an inflammatory reaction to the sun's UV rays having long-term contact with your skin. The good news is that at-home treatment is usually all that’s needed to heal from the burn itself; the bad news is that sun damage overall is irreversible. Just one bad sunburn in your lifetime increases your risk for skin cancer. And, of course, sun exposure contributes to premature skin aging.

The most important step you can take for skin health in the sun? Don’t skimp on that sunscreen in the first place. But if you already forgot the SPF protection and got burned, here's what to do (and what to avoid) right now to maximize healing, according to dermatologists who’ve seen it all.

The key steps to successful sunburn treatment are: cool down, moisturize, hydrate, address inflammation — and, perhaps most important of all, don’t do something to make it worse.

This general formula applies across age ranges and different skin tones, pediatric dermatologist Dr. Jody A. Levine tells Yahoo Life. That said, “children's skin is more sensitive, so gentle treatments are especially important for them.” Dermatologist Dr. Hannah Kopelman adds that “for infants under 6 months, direct sun exposure should be avoided entirely, and a pediatrician should be consulted if they get sunburned.”

While Levine notes that "redness is more apparent on lighter skin,” dermatologist Dr. Geeta Yadav tells Yahoo Life that those with dark skin tones are particularly prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which can happen after a sunburn. “Their skin may react to inflammation caused by injury by creating excess pigment, causing uneven skin tone,” Yadav explains. “This makes attention to inflammation particularly important.” It also makes it crucial to avoid peeling or picking at skin, since that additional damage can increase the risk for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Here's what else dermatologists recommend doing — and avoiding — after a sunburn.

  • Cool down your body using a gentle cold compress (like a wet washcloth) or by taking a cool bath to bring down inflammation.

  • Apply a gentle moisturizer while the sunburned skin is still damp after a bath or shower, as applying to damp skin helps trap moisture. Levine recommends creams that contain aloe vera and cucumber, "which are good for hydration as well as cooling and calming the skin.” Yadav agrees, adding that with sunburns, you should “moisturize more than you think is necessary.”

  • Drink water, since staying hydrated can promote overall healing.

  • Take ibuprofen. This, Yadav explains, “will help control your body's inflammatory response and provide some relief from pain, redness and swelling.”

  • Wear loose clothing made of natural fibers to allow breathability and avoid chafing while your skin heals.

  • Stay out of the sun. This one seems obvious but needs to be said: Don’t make a bad situation worse by adding sun exposure to already-burned skin.

  • Don’t apply ice directly to the skin, as this can cause further damage.

  • Don’t peel or play with your skin or pop blisters. All derms agree: Don’t do it! Messing with sunburned skin can further irritate it and make it more susceptible to infection and scarring. Instead, “let that dead skin fall off on its own,” urges Yadav. “It serves a purpose — it's protecting the fresh skin underneath, and peeling it off before it's ready can cause further damage.”

  • Don’t use a moisturizer containing petroleum (such as Vaseline), which “can trap heat in the body,” according to Kopelman.

  • Don’t rub or exfoliate, as this can aggravate skin and cause peeling. Instead, lightly apply moisturizer rather than rubbing it in, and “don't shave or use harsh skin care ingredients on the sunburned area as it heals, lest you exacerbate your own pain and discomfort,” Yadav advises.

  • Don’t use moisturizers that contain benzocaine, which can make inflammation worse.

A mild sunburn will typically last for a few days or up to a week. A more severe sunburn will take longer to heal, with symptoms presenting for even up to two weeks. Dermatologists note that skin peeling from a sunburn can also continue for a while after the sunburn itself subsides.

If a sunburn — yours or your child’s — isn’t improving with treatment or is showing symptoms such as blistering or signs of infection (pus, red streaks, swelling) you should head to the doctor. The same goes for a sunburn that’s accompanied by fever, chills or a headache. “If you feel faint, dizzy or unusually tired,” Kopelman adds, this “can indicate heat exhaustion or heat stroke” and should also merit a doctor visit.

You should be especially vigilant when it comes to kids and sunburns, since with young ones, any sunburn symptoms beyond the usual pain, redness and inflammation can be signs of a serious sunburn. “While adults may be able to recognize that something is off and they need medical attention, children may have trouble expressing how poorly they feel,” says Yadav. Therefore, it’s especially important for parents to monitor their kids’ symptoms after sunburn. As noted by Kopelman above, an infant age 6 months or younger who has experienced any kind of sunburn should see their pediatrician regardless.

“People don't take sunburns as seriously as they might a kitchen burn, but they should — they're still burns, and they're still causing damage,” Yadav says. “Like a standard burn, a very serious sunburn could even require hospitalization.”