Tips for Easing the Pain and Limiting the Damage of Sunburn

What to do if you've had some not-fun in the sun.
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Krizia Liquido
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What to do if you've had some not-fun in the sun.
Remilla Ty

Remilla Ty

Now that summer is officially here, so too comes weekends in the sun—and the inevitable burns. You know the drill: thinking that it’s cloudy out. Forgetting to reapply. Or maybe you just never think to put it on at all (yikes!).

I’m one of the guilty crowd who tells herself the lie that sunscreen isn’t a necessity. After all, I have naturally tan skin. I “never burn.” But the fact is that if I’m not wearing a daily SPF, I’m putting myself at risk of sunburn and skin cancer.

Sunburn doesn’t just look bad. It’s painful, it peels, and its damage is long-lasting and wrinkle-inducing. Even one bad burn may double your lifetime risk of melanoma, a serious skin cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that we could prevent more than two million diagnoses of skin cancer each year just by using sunscreen.

Sunburn is preventable with appropriate shade, clothing, and sunscreen, but mistakes can happen, especially during a long weekend like the one we just had. So we spoke with Dr. Michele Green, a board-certified dermatologist who has been practicing cosmetic and general dermatology in Manhattan for twenty years, for some advice on how to identify a sunburn, tips to ease the pain, and how to limit the sun damage.

Identify the damage. 

According to Dr. Green, “A sunburn is epidermal damage. You’ve actually injured the top layer of your skin. Sunburn is a first-degree burn. A second-degree burn is a deeper injury.” A sunburn can sneak up on you; it can take four to six hours for symptoms to develop in full. How do you identify it? “It feels tingly at first, and it may feel warm. It is painful, red, and you may blister,” Dr. Green notes.

Apply first aid. 

As soon as you notice a sunburn: “If it’s really on fire, place a cold compress on your skin. But do not use ice. You can’t put ice on your skin because ice can actually burn you as well,” Dr. Green warns. She also recommends taking aspirin or ibuprofen to decrease inflammation. Keep taking them for up to forty-eight hours to help ease the redness and swelling.

Soothe & cool. 

“Apply milk by using a cool compress soaked in whole milk. Milk fats on the skin help calm and heal the broken epidermis. Aloe vera gel is cooling and helps a lot with sunburn,” Dr. Green suggests. In general, skip the gels with lidocaine. Lidocaine is a numbing agent, which can be soothing at first but can also irritate your skin and exacerbate your burn. It especially should not be used if you have an infection, which sunburns are particularly prone to because the skin is damaged. Dr. Green advises only using gel with lidocaine if your doctor explicitly recommends it. Also remember that burns draw water to the skin, so make sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids—water and sports drinks are best.

Heal. 

See your doctor if the burn takes up more than 20 percent of your body. For a child, this would mean that his or her entire back is sunburned. Dr. Green notes, “If it’s already blistered, I prescribe a cream called Silvadene. It’s an antibiotic that has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.”

Are there different treatments for different areas of the skin? “No,” Dr. Green says. “They’re all pretty much the same. The only difference may end up depending on your skin color. If you experience hyperpigmentation (meaning that your skin gets darker after the burn due to increased melanin), I recommend using a cream containing hydroquinone.” This lightens dark patches by blocking the process of the skin that leads to melanin production.

Restore. 

Regardless of your age, skin type, or skin color, Dr. Green advises, “Treat all burns the same. Treat them gently no matter the degree or skin type. The worst thing you can do is scrub, pick, or peel off a burn. Don’t break a blister. Don’t scratch if it’s itchy. You’ll either scar, hyperpigment, or cause it to get infected. Moisturize as often as possible. Aveeno or aloe vera are great moisturizers. Neutrogena just came out with the new Hydro Boost Water Gel, an intense moisturizer for the face that absorbs quickly. Whatever you choose, use something without any alpha hydroxy or retinol on the ingredients list. Those will dry out your skin.”

It’s OK to use hydrocortisone to relieve the discomfort for one or two days. While studies are limited, products with vitamins C and E could also help limit skin damage.

Prevent. 

Prevention should always be the goal. Avoid sunburn by choosing the best sunscreen for your lifestyle. Dr. Green recommends Water Babies by Coppertone. “I like the pure and simple formula a lot. Use an SPF 50 or greater every two to three hours. Also note there is no such thing as ‘waterproof.’ They are actually changing packaging to say water-resistant instead of waterproof. After you get wet or sweat, you should reapply your sunscreen.”

Dr. Green also reminds us, “You can burn on a cloudy day. Just because the sun is behind the clouds doesn’t mean you’re not getting sunburned.”

Lastly, she says, “I always tell patients to wear a hat. Hats are important because people often forget to apply sunscreen to the tops of their heads. But you should be sure to apply sunscreen to your head as often as your body. You can even use a spray, which works well for kids. [My two daughters] never leave the house without sunblock.”

Just add a pair of shades, and you’ll be ready for some (safe) fun in the sun!