Sunburn Relief: Here’s How to Treat a Sunburn — and Prevent One in the First Place

Sunburn Relief: Here’s How to Treat a Sunburn — and Prevent One in the First Place
Medically Reviewed By:
Mark Arredondo, M.D.

Sun care is crucial, as exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays can lead to sunburn, premature aging of the skin and an increased risk of skin cancer. Regular and proper sun protection measures from childhood are essential for maintaining skin health and reducing the risk of long-term damage. 

What is a sunburn?

A sunburn is a type of skin damage caused by overexposure to UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources like tanning beds. When the skin is exposed to excessive UV rays, it triggers a reaction in the skin cells, leading to inflammation and redness. Sunburns can vary in severity, ranging from mild redness and discomfort to more severe blistering and pain.

How long does a sunburn last?

The duration of a sunburn can vary, depending on its severity. Mild sunburns typically last for a few days to a week, while more severe sunburns with blisters may take longer (7 to 10 days) to heal completely. 

Here's a general timeline of how a sunburn progresses:

Initial redness and discomfort: Redness usually appears 3 to 5 hours after sun exposure. The affected skin becomes red and warm, and it may feel tender or painful.

Peak redness and inflammation: The redness and discomfort of the sunburn usually peak within the first day or two after exposure. 

Potential blistering: In more severe cases of sunburn, blister formation may occur within a day or two after sun exposure. 

Peeling: After a few days, the sunburned skin may begin to peel as it heals. Peeling of the skin and tanning may occur 4 to 7 days after exposure.

How to treat a sunburn

Treating a sunburn involves soothing the skin, reducing inflammation and promoting healing. 

As a pediatric dermatologist at Boston Children's Hospital, here are some steps you may take to help alleviate sunburn discomfort and aid in the recovery process:

Cool the skin. Take a cool bath or apply cool compresses to the affected area to help soothe the burn and alleviate discomfort.

Moisturize the skin. Apply a gentle moisturizing cream to the sunburned skin to help soothe and hydrate it. Although aloe vera gel and calamine lotion are commonly applied to provide relief from sunburn symptoms, there is little evidence to support their use. While aloe vera is generally considered safe for most people and is widely used for its soothing properties, it may cause skin reaction (rash) in some individuals.

Consider taking an over-the-counter pain reliever. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen may help reduce pain and inflammation associated with sunburn.

Seek medical attention if needed. If you experience severe blistering, fever, chills or signs of infection (such as increased pain, swelling or pus), you should be evaluated by a healthcare provider. 

How to prevent a sunburn

Preventing a sunburn involves taking proactive measures to protect your skin from excessive UV radiation exposure. 

Here are some effective strategies for sunburn prevention:

Use sunscreen

Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection and with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher to all exposed skin — including your face, neck, ears and hands — at least 20-30 minutes before going outside, and reapply at least every 2 hours. Reapply frequently, and opt for a water-resistant sunscreen if you’re sweating or swimming. Sunscreens are available in various formulations, including lotions, creams, gels, sprays and sticks. Choose a formulation that suits your preferences and activities.

Are spray sunscreens effective? 

Spray sunscreens can provide coverage from UV rays when used correctly. To ensure adequate coverage, the sunscreen needs to be applied evenly to avoid skipped areas. Spraying sunscreen on the hands and then applying on the skin ensures even coverage. 

Protect your lips

Apply a lip balm with SPF to protect your lips from sunburn and UV damage.

Wear protective clothing

Covering up your skin with long-sleeved shirts, pants and wide-brimmed hats can provide additional protection from the sun's harmful UV rays. When choosing clothing for sun protection, look for garments made from tightly woven fabrics with a high Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF).

Wear sunglasses

Protect your eyes and eyelids by wearing sunglasses with UV protection. Not all sunglasses have UV protection, so be sure to check the label. 

Seek shade

If possible, limit direct sun exposure, especially during peak UV radiation hours between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If you're outdoors, seek shade under trees, umbrellas or canopies to reduce your UV exposure.

Be mindful of reflections

Remember that UV rays can reflect off surfaces like water, sand, snow and concrete, increasing your exposure. Take extra precautions in these environments by applying sunscreen more frequently and wearing protective clothing.

Avoid tanning beds

Avoid using tanning beds, as they emit harmful UV radiation that can increase your risk of sunburn, skin aging and skin cancer.

Be consistent

Make sun protection a habit year-round, not just during the summer or on sunny days. UV radiation can penetrate clouds and cause sunburn even on overcast days.

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