Here's the right way to get rid of a sunburn
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It’s probably happened to most of us at some time or another: We get a little careless with the SPF and miss a spot, or we don’t have someone with us to hit that unreachable spot on our backs, or we smooth sunscreen on our arms but forget to do our shoulders when we whip off our t-shirt to go swimming. And then, yow: evening comes and our skin is getting redder and redder, and oh-so-sore. And a few days later, we look in the mirror and see super-unattractive peeling skin, or icky-looking blisters.
The bad news: While the color may eventually fade, a sunburn causes lasting damage. “It’s difficult to make sunburn go away,” says Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine. “It is literally a toxic injury to the skin that requires time for healing as the cells regenerate. It’s also important to remember that although the rash of the sunburn may fade, the damage lasts a lifetime, sometimes doubling the risk of skin cancer with just one burn. Judicious sun protection year round is an essential part of skin health.”
When you get repeated exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun’s rays, it increases your risk of skin cancer, as Dr. Gohara points out. Even one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double a person’s chance of developing melanoma, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). At particular risk of skin cancer are those who burn easily; people with blond or red hair; those who use tanning beds or who have gotten lots of sun exposure; or people who have a weakened immune system. But skin cancer can affect people of all skin tones; in fact, it’s often diagnosed later in people with darker skin tones, says the AAD, because it can be harder to spot.
Sunburns also add to premature aging, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF). Says Dr. Gohara, “Sunburn can cause increased freckling and uneven skin tone long term, hyperpigmentation, and free radical damage, which wreaks cosmetic havoc on the skin— these pesky little chemical particles weaken collagen, ultimately accelerating premature aging.”
The good news: When it comes to promoting the healing and easing the ouch of a sunburn, there are plenty of home remedies you can try. Keep reading to learn how you can make that redness go away faster, plus some of top-tested sunscreens from the Good Housekeeping Institute that will save your skin the next time around.
How to get rid of sunburn on your face and body fast:
1. Take a cool bath or shower.
Keep the temp low and then lather on moisturizer as soon as you get out, the AAD advises. The cool H20 may help ease the pain and reduce the inflammation caused by the sunburn, and the lotion will help trap moisture and make your skin feel and look less dry. The SCF suggests avoiding harsh soap, which can further irritate the skin.
2. Apply aloe.
There’s a reason why it’s the go-to after-sun product. Pure aloe vera gel — whether out of a bottle or straight from the plant — contains cooling and soothing properties. It can also potentially promote wound healing, according to the Mayo Clinic. And in test tube studies, the aloe plant has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.
3. Use an ice pack or compress.
Wrap ice in a cloth before applying it directly to your skin, or soak a washcloth in cold water or milk and place that on the burn. The vitamins and antioxidants in milk can help your skin heal, says dermatologist Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., medical director of Mudgil Dermatology in Manhattan and Hicksville, New York.
4. Drink lots of water.
A sunburn draws fluid to the skin and away from the rest of the body, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Rehydrate by downing plenty of H20, or a low-sugar drink that has electrolytes. (Don’t try to hydrate by swigging margaritas, though; alcohol can make the problem worse.)
5. Don’t pop any blisters.
Severe and widespread blisters require a doctor’s attention, but if you get a few, leave ’em be. Opening them up makes them vulnerable to infection, the AAD says. If blisters pop naturally, the Mayo Clinic advises that you clean the open wound with mild soap and water and cover it with antibiotic ointment and a bandage.
6. Protect against further damage.
If you need to go outside again, wear clothing that covers your skin and stay in the shade. Don’t forget to apply lots of sunscreen as well — at least a shot glass-full for the body, a nickel-size dollop for the face, says GH Beauty Lab Director Birnur Aral, Ph.D. Adds Dr. Gohara, “It’s important to use SPF on the burn so as to not stoke the fire with additional damage!”
7. Try over-the-counter medications.
The pharmacy aisles can also help with the healing process, if you reach for the right stuff:
Take aspirin or ibuprofen: An OTC pain reliever like Advil can help reduce swelling and discomfort.
Rub on a hydrocortisone cream: A mild topical steroid like Cortizone-10 may speed up healing, according to the Mayo Clinic.
8. Skip heat-trapping products.
There are things you may be tempted to use on your skin that can make things worse because they trap the heat in. Not good. For this reason, the SCF says to avoid using oil-based lotions or petroleum products.
9. Also skip topical anesthetics.
Products like benzocaine — in fact, any products that end in “-caine” — are best avoided right now, because they can further irritate the skin.
10. Switch up your skincare regimen.
It’s best to skip some of your usual skincare steps for now. Exfoliators and scrubs will just add to the pain and could further damage your skin; same with toners. If you’re using an acne medication, you probably want to talk to your doc about whether it’s a good idea to take a little break.
11. Keep moisturizing.
The SCF suggests that you keep rubbing lotion on over the sunburned area over the next few days, to help keep the burned or peeling area moist.
12. Consider an oatmeal bath.
The Cleveland Clinic advises easing the discomfort of a sunburn by adding colloidal oatmeal to your bath water; it’s known to ease inflammation. Just take a break, lie back and say “aaahh.”
13. Or add baking soda to that bath.
The Cleveland Clinic also says a bath with baking soda can help with the ouch. It also has antibacterial properties, and in research was shown to reduce itchiness. Try a lukewarm bath with a half cup or so of baking soda.
When should you call a doctor for sunburn relief?
If you have blisters over a large area of your body, or you’re experiencing fever or chills, or feel loopy or confused, get medical help, says the SCF. If you notice that your sunburn is spreading, that could be a sign of infection, and you need to call your doctor ASAP.
How to prevent sunburn:
Prepare yourself for your next time in the sun: Shop these favorite sunscreens and stash bottles in your beach bag, purse and other key spots. Then don’t forget to apply a lot of it, often! Many people don’t realize how much they should use, or how often they should apply it. The SCF recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours, or even sooner if you’re sweating a lot or have gone swimming. So don’t skimp!
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