You’ve Got a Nasty Sunburn. Now What?

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a person’s risk for developing melanoma, a type of skin cancer, doubles if they have had more than five sunburns

Exposure to the sun also causes the skin to age prematurely, according to an Australian study.

The short term effects of sunburn aren’t much fun either. Redness, swelling, and pain. 

Since most of us go outside regularly, we all need to be aware of how to protect our skin from the sun’s harmful rays and what to do to prevent and treat sunburn. 

Read on to learn more. 

What Is a Sunburn?

A sunburn is an inflammatory reaction that occurs after exposure to too much ultraviolet light. The sun exposes us to both UVA and UVB rays.

UVB rays are the type that causes sunburns. UVA rays, however, are more responsible for the premature aging of our skin.

Sunburns cause the skin to heat up and turn either pink or red. The skin can swell, hurt, be tender to the touch, and/or itch.

More serious sunburns can result in blistering, headaches, nausea, or fever. You can even feel fatigued.

How to Prevent Sunburn

While we tend to think of sunburns as a summer-time issue, proactive sun damage prevention should be followed year-round. 

A sunburn can occur with as little as 15 minutes of sun exposure, whether you can see the sun through the clouds or not. 

So it is important to use a spray or lotion with a broad-spectrum sun protector factor (SPF) of 15 or higher every day on all skin that will be exposed when you are outside. This includes skin that will only be covered by a lightweight fabric. 

Apply your SPF lotion or spray liberally.

Use the spray or lotion 30 minutes before going outside to give your skin time to absorb it. Then, remember to reapply every two hours. 

If you’ll be exposed to water or heavy sweating, reapply more regularly, even if you are using “waterproof” spray or lotion. 

What to Do If You Have a Sunburn

Even for people who are diligent about using sunscreen, it is still possible to end up with a sunburn somewhere where you missed a spot or didn’t cover well enough.

Once you’ve realized you have gotten sunburned, it’s time to use sunburn treatments to help your skin heal. These tips should help.

Get Out of the Sun or Cover Up

If you are stuck outside, find a way to cover up the affected areas or move somewhere where you’ll be in the shade.

If you have your SPF lotion or spray, reapply it now to prevent further damage.


Drink some water to cool yourself down and to replace the fluids that have evaporated out of your skin due to being sunburned. 

It is important to stay hydrated until your skin fully heals.

Clean the Affected Skin

Shower or bathe in cool water to make sure the skin is clean. You can also add cornstarch or oatmeal to your bath for additional relief.

Be gentle. Don’t use any abrasive cloth, loofah, or cleanser as it will further irritate your skin. 

Apply a Cold Cloth or Ice Pack

By applying either a washcloth wet with cool water or an ice pack to your skin, you can lower the heat of your sunburn.

If using an ice pack, be sure to put a towel between the pack and your skin to protect the ice from further damaging your already sensitive skin.

Apply an Aloe Vera Lotion

To protect and cool your skin, use a lightweight gel or lotion containing aloe vera to your skin. Avoid products containing alcohol which can cause your skin to dry out even further and hinder the healing process.

Avoid any heavy creams like cocoa butter or skin balms as they will create a barrier preventing your skin from releasing the heat from your sunburn.  

Take Anti-Inflammatory Medication

To help ease some of your sunburn symptoms such as swelling, pain, and redness, you can also take over-the-counter Advil, Aleve or Motrin (or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug). 

Do Not Help Your Skin Peel

Within a couple of days of getting sunburned, it is common for your skin to peel off the layers that were damaged. 

It may be tempting to “help” your skin peel by pulling on the layers as they begin to detach from your skin, but it is important not to do this. 

By pulling on the loose skin, you will be removing the protective layer covering skin that hasn’t yet healed properly from your sunburn and isn’t ready to be exposed. 

How Long Does a Sunburn Take to Heal

Mild sunburns can take two or three days to fully heal. The pink or redness may fade sooner, but some skin sensitivity will likely remain a bit longer. 

More severe sunburns that result in blistering take longer to heal since the skin was damaged at a deeper level. The skin will go through several stages of healing before all symptoms are gone: the blisters will pop open, then develop a scab which will have to heal before it falls off. This process may take up to two weeks.

When You Should See a Doctor

Most sunburns that heal within a few days do not require a visit to the doctor. It is normal for a sunburn to peel and doesn’t require medical attention.

However, if you have any of the following symptoms, you need to go see your doctor:

  • Blistering over a large area of your body (or leaks yellow fluid once it breaks open)
  • You have a high fever
  • You feel confused, nauseous or have a headache
  • The pain is severe (or gets worse as time goes on)
  • If the sunburned skin increases in swelling

Make Proper Sunburn Prevention a Daily Routine

The harmful effects of the sun’s rays add up over time, so preventing sunburn and other damage to your skin needs to be part of your daily routine. 

Try storing your sunscreen near where you get dressed in the morning so it will be handy for applying prior to putting on your clothes. This will make it easier to apply to problem areas such as your neck and chest.

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