How to treat sunburn

Your skin can burn if it gets too much sun without proper protection from sunscreen and clothes. To help heal and soothe stinging skin, it is important to begin treating sunburn as soon as you notice it.

There is no cure for the symptoms of sunburn except time and patience. Treatment aims to help manage the symptoms while the body heals.

On this page, you can find the following information:

How to treat mild sunburn

Treatment for mild sunburn aims to cool the skin and relieve discomfort. Mild sunburn will get better over 1–2 days if you keep out of the sun.

Avoid further sun exposure

The first thing you should do is get out of the sun and preferably indoors. To prevent further sun damage, cover up and keep out of direct sunlight until the burnt area has healed.

Cool the affected area

Apply a cold flannel over the area, sponge it with cold water or have a cool bath or shower. Avoid using soap as this may further irritate your skin. As soon as you get out of the bathtub or shower, gently pat yourself dry, but leave a little water on your skin. Then, apply a moisturizer to help trap the water in your skin. This can help ease the dryness. It also helps to use air conditioning to keep room temperatures cool.

Soothe your skin

Speak to your pharmacist about products that help soothe sunburn (often called “after-sun care”). Try using spray-on solutions rather than creams which require rubbing in by hand. Aloe vera is known to have a soothing effect. Cooling gels can be kept in the fridge and applied when the skin feels hot. Local anaesthetics such as lignocaine offer pain relief but be careful as these may irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction. Do not apply to broken skin.   

Drink extra fluids

Sunburn draws fluid to the skin’s surface and away from the rest of the body. Drinking extra water when you are sunburned helps prevent dehydration. Avoid alcohol as this will cause you to become more dehydrated.

Moisturise

If your skin is not too painful, apply moisturiser. This will help boost the moisture content of the skin beneath and relieve irritation of dry, flaky skin. Do not apply butter, cocoa butter or other oil-based products to sunburnt skin. Repeat the moisturiser regularly so that burned or peeling skin stays cool and moist over the next few days.

Take pain relief to help ease the pain

Take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve pain. Anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen can relieve swelling and discomfort. It is important not to use anti-inflammatories if you are dehydrated as they can be harmful to the kidneys. Read more acute kidney injury.   

Don't pop blisters or scratch, scrub, pick or peel your skin

Blistering skin means you have a second-degree sunburn. Do not pop the blisters, as blisters form to help your skin heal and protect you from infection. Cover itchy blisters with a wound dressing to reduce the risk of infection. If your blisters open on their own, clean that area with water to avoid infection. Blisters will gradually reduce in size as your sunburn heals.

Take extra care to protect sunburned skin while it heals

As part of the healing process, sunburnt skin will peel off after a few days. There's no cream or lotion that will stop burnt skin from peeling off. This is part of the natural healing process. When skin is peeling, don't pick at it. This can increase your risk of infection. Talk to your pharmacist about whether you need an antiseptic cream to reduce the risk of infection. Wear clothing that covers your skin when outdoors. Tightly-woven fabrics work best. When you hold the fabric up to a bright light, you shouldn’t see any light coming through.

How to treat severe sunburn

You should seek medical advice if you are burnt over a large area or have any of the symptoms listed below:

  • Blistering or swelling of the skin (oedema).
  • Chills.
  • A high fever.
  • Dizziness, headaches and feeling sick (symptoms of heat exhaustion).

Your doctor may recommend using hydrocortisone cream for a few days to reduce the inflammation of your skin – this is also available over the counter at pharmacies. Severe sunburn may require special burn cream and burn dressings. Very occasionally, hospital treatment may be needed.

Skin damage

Your skin will heal, but real damage has been done. Repeat sunburns put you at risk for skin cancer and cause premature skin ageing. Remember how bad this sunburn felt, then commit to protecting yourself from the sun. Read more about sun safety.

References

  1. How to treat sunburn American Academy of Dermatology
  2. Sunburn Better Health Channel, Australia 
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial team.