Can After-Sun Products Really Soothe a Sunburn?
Picture this: You have just spent a long, relaxing day on the beach. After hours of lounging safely under your umbrella, protected by your favorite SPF formula, you pack up your belongings and head home. The only problem? As you go to rinse off, you notice a patch of red-you missed a spot. Chances are, you then reach for a bottle of aloe vera-based gel. While this is a common response, we can't help but wonder if these post-sun formulas truly soothe skin. To find out, we chatted with a few dermatologists; ahead, their thoughts on this long-standing product category.
Aloe vera-based after-sun products do have their benefits.
Ultimately, there's a good reason why we've been taught to reach for aloe vera after any type of burn, including the sun-induced iterations. "Generally speaking, products that contain aloe vera will be beneficial for those with sunburns since aloe vera-the gel that comes from the leaves of the plant-has soothing and healing properties. It treats sunburn, as well as other burn wounds and injuries," explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman.
Look for antioxidants in the ingredient list.
Not any old aloe-infused product will do, though. Dr. Engelman notes to scan shelves for a potent formula with a high dose of this botanical (it should be the first ingredient on the list!), in addition to a mixture of other skin-friendly additives. "The purpose of an after-sun product is to soothe, moisturize, heal, and prevent more damage," she explains. "Therefore, look for options that contain antioxidants, like vitamin C and healing vitamin E." In addition to aloe vera and antioxidants, hydrating ingredients, like ceramides, will create a barrier between the dermis and external aggressors, shielding it from additional distress, she notes.
Steer clear of drying or irritating additives and fragrance.
There are ingredients you should steer clear of, too; be on the lookout for anything potentially drying or irritating, like exfoliating acids or retinoids. "I recommend avoiding alcohol-based products which can irritate and dry skin and make sunburns feel worse. I also suggest staying away from heavy or occlusive products that come in cream or ointment form-these can trap heat into the skin and promote more tissue damage following a sunburn," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian adds. "Instead, look for lightweight formulations of lotions or gels that have anti-inflammatory ingredients to calm skin and promote healing."
Another ingredient to be wary of? Added fragrance. "Heavily-fragranced products are the number one cause of contact dermatitis in skin care," says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Adeline Kikam. "You do not want to [increase] your chances [of a reaction] when skin is already inflamed."
Apply after-sun products as needed.
It's simple: Apply your post-sun products when you skin feels inflamed, since they are designed to calm the dermis upon contact. Though they won't heal your sunburn on the spot, they will reduce the pain. For the best results, store your formula of choice in the fridge, so it feels extra chilly upon application, advises Dr. Nazarian. "This also helps support healthy tissue after a sunburn," she shares.
Sunscreen is infinitely more important.
As nice as an after-sun product might feel, a summer without red skin feels even better. Dr. Nazarian reminds us that preventing sunburn-not caring for one-should be your first priority. "Sunburns can increase your risk of developing skin cancer in life, so try your absolute best to protect your skin," she says, noting that daily SPF application (and reapplication!) is a must. "Remember that ultraviolet radiation can penetrate clouds, so you're vulnerable even on overcast days; and if you already have a sunburn, be extra cautious about avoiding the sun until you have healed. It's easier to damage skin when it is already inflamed, broken, and weak-so cover up and stay safe."