A bad sunburn can totally ruin any summer vacation. The UV radiation damages your skin cells to the point that they start to swell and burst. That sets off an inflammatory reaction during which your skin heats up, turns red, and swells. Though the worst of the symptoms typically peak after 24 hours, the peeling and itching can last for days. We all know that the most important thing you can do to avoid sunburn is apply (and reapply!) your sunscreen whenever you'll be in the sun, but accidents do happen. Whether you missed a hard-to-reach spot on your back or forgot to reapply your SPF after a dip in the pool, just about everyone deals with the occasional sunburn. Though time is the only real cure for a sunburn, there are a few things you can do to reduce the pain and irritation. We spoke to Dr. Charisse Dolitsky of Schweiger Dermatology Group in Long Beach, New York, who offered tips for taking care of a sunburn and natural remedies that can help soothe the skin.
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Dolitsky says that the first few hours of a sunburn "can present with a spectrum of slight red, tender skin to severe pain with blistering." The most important thing to do during this stage is to cool down your body. Take a cold shower or bath, go for a quick swim, or apply cold compresses. Because of its antiseptic properties, vinegar compresses can irritate and cause further burning if it's not diluted enough. You should also avoid using ice because it can freeze and harm the skin. Instead, just soak a washcloth in cold water and lay it over the burn.
It's important to drink lots of water because a sunburn can dehydrate you enough to cause a headache, fatigue, or nausea. "If symptoms of high fever, dizziness, confusion, or rapid breathing develop, one should seek immediate medical attention," says Dolitsky. To rehydrate your skin, leave it a little wet when you get out of the shower and apply aloe vera or a very light moisturizer. Using a thick, gloppy moisturizer like Vaseline or butter will trap heat and deter your skin from cooling.
If the burn is bad enough that blisters develop, resist the urge to pop them. "A blister is the best natural bandaid and the fluid in the blister is sterile and promotes healing," says Dolitsky. If they pop on their own, dab on a bit of antibacterial cream from your first-aid kit and cover them with a non-stick, sterile dressing.
While there's nothing you can do to heal the skin, there's plenty you can do to soothe it. If you're a tea drinker, you're probably familiar with the many healing qualities of green and black tea. "The tannins help draw heat out of the burn," says Dolitsky. Tea also has polyphenols (naturally occurring chemicals mostly found in plant foods) that have been found to have protective qualities so it may help to prevent skin damage in the future. Steep the tea until it is very strong, then stick it in the fridge for a few minutes. Soak towels or compresses in the tea and apply them to the skin.
Mixing some colloidal oatmeal into your bathwater can help moisturize and calm the inflammation of the skin. Using the oats you eat for breakfast most likely will not have the same effect because it's not fine enough to really coat your skin. Slathering on some plain yogurt for 15 to 20 minutes before the bath may also help as the probiotics can relieve some sensitivity and redness. Essential oils can irritate sensitive skin and cause allergic reactions so it's best to avoid applying them to a burn.
If the skin starts to peel, don't pick at it! Doing so can lead to infection and even create permanent scarring. Similarly, exfoliating sunburned skin can cause further redness, irritation, and stinging. Instead, apply a moisturizer with ceramides twice daily. Coconut oil is a good alternative to a store-bought moisturizer—the lipid content will help the skin rebuild its protective barrier and, consequently, help it retain water. However, Dolitsky says that using it too early will trap heat within the skin so it's best to hold off until around day three when the skin has had a chance to cool down.