It’s really easy to lose track of time while lying on the beach, reading a good book, relaxing, and listening to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. It’s a heavenly experience, alright, but it can quickly turn into hell if we let the sun burn our skin. Treating sunburned skin is no easy task, and it can seriously affect the quality of your vacation.
We’ve all experienced a sunburn at least once in our lifetime. It’s frightening how frequently we’re letting it happen when sunburned skin is one of the most harmful skin conditions with severe short term and long term consequences. This is why it’s crucial that we learn how to protect the skin from the sun and use sunscreen regularly, especially in the summer. If you’re interested, here are the top summer skincare tips, so that you never have to face unpleasant conditions again.
But today we’ll focus exclusively on sunburns. If you’ve already got carried away on the beach and got sunburned, this article is for you. Learn how to treat sunburned skin with these 11 effective tips that are seriously a life-saver.
Keep reading to find your relief.
The first thing you need to know about sunburns is why and how they happen. Have you ever wondered why our skin reacts negatively after being exposed to sunlight when we know that we need the sun to get Vitamin D?
Not to go too sciency on you, we’ll just cover the basics.
Ultraviolet light (the one we can’t see) carries a lot more energy than the light visible to us. When the high energy from the UV light strikes the skin, it damages the DNA inside our body cells by breaking the orderly bonds between the four nucleotides and throwing the whole shape of the DNA molecule out of whack.
Cells with damaged DNA go into programmed cell death or apoptosis - they start destroying themselves. It doesn’t take long for our body to detect that something bad is happening and send an army of white blood cells to the area to help with the healing process. This is pretty much the time when you start to see and feel the sunburn. Your body becomes painfully inflamed, which is a part of the natural healing reaction.
If the sunburn is high, you might even have thermal damage, just like burns caused by standing too close to a fire. As a result, liquid-filled skin blisters form over areas of tissue damage.
In a couple of days, you’ll start to peel off and get rid of the cells with damaged DNA. This is actually really important. The body has a natural sensor that detects the mutated cells and triggers faster cell turnover as a protective measure because sometimes damaged cells don’t die - they turn into cancer instead.
Nobody can tell you if the cells with damaged DNA will follow the natural process and die, or whether they’ll become mutated cells and keep proliferating as cancers. It’s like a roll of a dice, never knowing what you’ll get.
All we know is, the more sunburns, the higher the chance of skin cancer.
This doesn’t mean that when your skin gets sloughed and the burned layer of skin peels off you’re safe. No one ever knows what kind of changes the UV light has caused, and some consequences manifest after decades.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), even one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double a person's chance of developing melanoma.
Therefore, having and treating sunburned skin is no joke, so continue reading to find out the best tips for caring for sunburned skin.
There’s no right answer to this question since not only one factor is involved. How long will it take for the UV lights to burn the skin depends on the intensity and strength of the UV light, the physiology, and genetics of each individual, the protection you’re using, i.e sunscreen, and how you’re using it.
For example, typically it takes around 10-15 minutes for the skin to become visibly darker. But, with people with a paler complexion, those 10-15 minutes of unprotected exposure might lead to a very nasty sunburn.
Of course, talking about how each skin reacts differently when exposed to UV sunlight (still, every skin is damaged) can make you think - what makes one person’s skin more prone to sunburns, while another’s simply becomes a dreamy-chocolate tan.
It’s all in the melanin!
Melanin is a natural sunscreen. When your body senses damage (like when the UV light is rupturing the cells’ DNA) it starts sending out melanin into surrounding cells and tries to protect and shield them from further damage.
We all have the same amount of melanocytes, but we’re different in how much and what colors of melanin we produce. People with darker skin produce more melanin than people with bright skin, which means they have more natural protection against UV light.
Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that those people can’t get sunburned, or that they aren’t vulnerable to skin cancer. It simply means that it would take a little longer for the UV light to penetrate and damage the cells. Regardless of your skin tone, always wear sunscreen, avoid being exposed to the sun for a long period of time, and avoid the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Now that you know how serious sunburned skin might turn out to be, you might consider twice before sunbathing again, especially unprotected.
However, once you’re there, there are a couple of things you can do. First, you can use professional after-sun creams or creams for sunburned skin. Second, you can try out some of the most famous natural remedies for sunburned skin. Finally, you can use other tips and tricks that can help you heal even faster.
Not so long ago, we treated sunburns with cold sour milk cream. Fortunately, today you have an abundance of professional skincare products, specifically formulated for sun-exposed skin.
Most after-sun creams work by replenishing lost moisture and feeding the skin with beneficial and potent antioxidative vitamins and minerals. This, in turn, boosts the skin’s healing process and makes it more powerful in repairing the damage caused by UV light.
However, not everyone is on board with professional after-sun care.
For example, the skincare expert, Michaella Bolder, who spoke with The Independent on the matter, says: “After-sun formulas tend to have rich, thick consistencies containing oils, which create an emollient barrier on top of the skin trapping the heat in the upper layer of the epidermis and exacerbating the inflammation and ‘burn’ feeling on your face.”
She even advises using pure and natural aloe vera gel since its equally, if not more, effective.
Whether you decide to go for an after-sun cream or not, have in mind that you need to check the ingredients’ labels before buying anything. Fragrances and abrasive chemicals can do a lot more harm to sunburned skin and cause complications. All-natural, gentle products are your best bet.
Although aloe vera deserves a separate category among the treatment options for sunburned skin, it’s still a very simple natural remedy.
Actually, aloe vera is one of the most powerful ingredients for soothing burned skin, present in almost all professional skincare products.
Plus, aloe vera has science on its side. Several older and new scientific articles give light to just how much can aloe vera help with the healing process of sunburned skin.
In 2007, a systematic review of the efficacy of aloe vera used for burn wound healing, published in the Journal of The International Society for Burn Injuries, found that cumulative evidence tends to support the hypothesis that aloe vera might be an effective intervention used in burn wound healing for first to second-degree burns.
Findings from a more recent study, from 2018 published in the journal Molecules, suggest that aloin (the ingredient extracted from aloe vera gel) effectively suppresses the inflammatory response.
Applying aloe vera on the skin will keep your skin well hydrated and moisturized, without clogging the pores. Plus, it can reduce redness, swelling, cool down the temperature of sunburned skin, and with that, bring relief from the painful sunburn.
You can use fresh and pure or previously-stored aloe vera gel and apply it directly to the affected area.
Another very popular home remedy for sunburned skin is oatmeal, and for a good reason. Oats are actually FDA approved ingredients, recognized for their healing properties for many skin ailments and conditions, including sunburned skin.
Oats contain natural antimicrobial agents and anti-inflammatory properties which work really well for swelling, redness, and even blisters. They also promote new cell growth and accelerate the process of skin renewal.
Best of all? Cooked oatmeal is one of the gentlest ingredients, suited for all skin types.
How to use it?
Very simple, just take one cup of oats and mix them with water. Cook the oatmeal on the stove for just a few minutes on low heat. After it’s done, move the paste away from the heat and let it cool off. When it’s at room temperature or even a little cooler, you can apply it on the affected areas and leave it on for 20 minutes.
If you want quick benefits, use baking soda to soothe the skin. Baking soda is alkaline and helps restore the natural pH level on the skin in this situation.
Although baking soda is promoted as a remedy for many skin problems, you need to be careful, since its alkane property can break the natural acidic mantle of the skin, damaging the skin’s protective barrier and do harm. Read our article on baking soda to learn more about its uses - when and how.
But, for now, what you need to know is that you can use baking soda only as a short term solution. During a nasty sunburn, your skin is more acidic, inflamed, and swollen - something which baking soda can get rid of.
You can use baking soda a spot treatment only on the affected areas, or you can make yourself a bath, add ¼ cup of baking soda, and soak for around 15 minutes.
If you want to use it only on the affected areas then mix baking soda with 2-3 tbsp of water to form a paste and gently apply the mixture directly to the skin. Let the paste sit for 10 to 15 minutes and then rinse.
Chamomile tea is one of the most soothing ingredients for our overall health, and for skin specifically. Chamomile has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and has been used as a natural remedy for rosacea because it’s very effective in treating red and inflamed skin.
Chamomile also has potent antioxidant abilities. Plus, it can reduce pain.
One 2018 study from the official Journal of The Italian Neurological Society supported the claims of the efficacy of chamomile as pain relief in migraine without aura.
Unfortunately, we still don’t have direct evidence of these capacities in skin-related conditions.
Nonetheless, chamomile is also praised for its wound-healing capacities. In one double-blind trial on 14 patients, researchers found that chamomile is quite effective in wound drying and in speeding epithelialization after the dermabrasion of tattoos.
Having both potent anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties, chamomile tea is a great remedy to treat sunburned skin with.
If you want to go all the way in helping your skin heal as fast as possible you can also try these trips alongside after-sun creams or natural remedies.
Not cold! If you hop in the shower and go for really cold water, you can damage the skin even more and cause complications. Instead, use cool water. Something that’s tolerable and comfortable for you. Cool water can bring you quick relief from the pain.
Don’t ever shower with hot water while having burned skin!
Another trick is to apply a cold wet washcloth to your burn for around 15 minutes throughout the day. You can also use ice but never apply it directly to the skin. Instead, towel-wrapped ice pack to the affected area.
Don’t let your sunburned skin dry off. It’s already dehydrated and it will quickly become really dry. This will create even more pain - every movement might hurt. To prevent this and actually help the skin heal faster, moisturize it as many times as you can during the day.
We understand this might not be something you like or want to accept, but applying more skincare cosmetics on sunburned skin is a cardinal sin. Those cosmetics are designed to penetrate the skin and stimulate beneficial physiological processes. While your skin is already busy with the healing process, anything else can interfere negatively.
Drink a lot of water and stay hydrated. Sunburned skin is also dehydrated skin and possibly a dehydrated body. Feed the body from the inside out, so that it’s more capable to handle the burns. Being well-hydrated means creating optimal conditions for the proper skin function.
The last thing you want is to irritate sunburned skin - you’ll only add up to your pain, redness, swelling, and even create small injuries that will leave scarring. Trust us, you don’t want permanent scars along with premature skin aging and a higher chance of skin cancer. So, wear minimal comfortable clothes for a few days until the burns heal.
We’re guessing, if you’re on vacation, the most burning (pun intended) question you have is when and how it’s safe for you to go back to the beach?
After healing, your skin may be extremely sensitive to sunlight and burn even more easily. Limit your sun exposure to a minimum, wear more clothes as protection, and be protected! Choose a very high SPF sunscreen.
Always apply sunscreen around 30-20 minutes before going out, to allow the product to fully absorb into your skin. When you’re out, re-apply sunscreen every 1-2 hours and immediately after swimming or drying yourself with a towel.
Today you can also find waterproof sunscreens which will protect you even while you’re swimming.
There are some amazing tips you can use to get relief from the pain, make the healing process go a little faster, and even prevent further complications.
But, unfortunately, you can’t erase or reverse all of the consequences of sun-damaged skin. This is because, as many dermatologists warn, the effects of the sunburns you had during your teenage years manifest even 30 years later. Sun damage is the number one, if not the only, factor responsible for the process of skin aging. The best action against skin cancer and premature aging is to protect the skin from the sun, apply sunscreen regularly, and don’t let the skin burn.
However, once you’re in that mess, it’s better to try the above-mentioned tips and prevent even more complications, as well as pain - and maybe a ruined vacation.