Suffering From Sunburns—Now What?

June 22, 2017

When it comes to our skin, the sun is anything but forgiving. Forget to reapply sunscreen or overlook a patch in the back, and you can most likely plan on nursing a sun burn for the next few days. The good news is, this common summer woe can often be treated at home, says William Wooden, MD, FACS, plastic surgeon at Indiana University Health. Here, he offers tips for caring for sunburned skin.

Cool down. At the first sign of a burn, get out of the sun to avoid further skin damage. Then focus on cooling yourself down—it helps you recover faster, Dr. Wooden says. Sitting in an air-conditioned room, taking a quick shower or bath in tepid water, or placing a cool compress on the skin can all do the trick.

Drink up. Dehydration and sunburns often go hand in hand, as a sunburn draws fluids to the surface of the skin and away from the rest of the body. Your next priority? Replenish any fluids you just lost. “Dehydration is very dangerous and impairs your body’s metabolic functions,” Dr. Wooden explains. “Hydrating restores normal blood flow and organ function, which allows you to repair the damage and heal from a sunburn.” Skip alcohol and caffeine- and sugar-filled drinks—water is your best bet, he says.

Reduce the inflammation. Since a sunburn is an inflammation, take a non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug, such as Tylenol or Motrin, after you’re fully rehydrated. It can offer some relief from discomfort.

Clean and moisturize the skin. Keep the sunburned area clean—it’s the best way to prevent skin infections. Dr. Wooden recommends only wearing clean clothes and showering twice a day with a mild antibacterial soap. Follow up with a light- to medium-weight moisturizer that’s fragrance- and alcohol-free, such as Aquaphor, though aloe is fine, too. It will soothe dried-out skin and help it heal faster by locking in much-needed moisture. “Use a fresh, new bottle that hasn’t been contaminated, so you’re not putting an old product on your skin,” he adds.

Don’t scratch or pick your skin. Though a gentle exfoliation is fine once the burn is in the healing phase (read: no harsh scrubs, chemicals or brushes), Dr. Wooden advises against itching or peeling flaking skin. It can make the tender area more susceptible for an infection. If the itching gets too bad, though, he suggests applying a topical ointment like Benadryl or calamine lotion.

Seek medical help when needed. Sunburns tend to improve within a few days and can usually be treated at home. But Dr. Wooden recommends calling your health care provider if you have a fever, the pain worsens, or you have red streaks or blisters filled with pus, which could suggest an infection.

Be proactive about protection. Of course, when it comes to protecting your skin from the sun’s rays, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of care,” Dr. Wooden says. This means applying a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15-30 before you step foot outside and reapplying frequently; wearing sun-protective clothing; and seeking out shade wherever you can (or creating your own with a wide-brimmed hat or umbrella). And if you do get sunburned, plan on staying out of the sun for the next day or two to avoid further skin damage.

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