The do's and don'ts of sunburn care: Tips for fast relief and prevention of further damage

While I really hope you are wearing sunscreen every single day, I get it, sunburns happen. It’s important to understand how to properly care for a sunburn and prevent further damage to your skin. Ultimately you want healing to happen!

So what are sunburns specifically??

Sunburns are inflammatory reactions to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This occurs on the skin’s outer layers. Your skin is filled with melanin, a pigment that gives your skin its color. Melanin is also what helps to protect and defend your body from the sun. This works because melanin darkens your unprotected skin that is exposed to the sun. Since everyone has varying amounts of melanin, this explains why some people are more prone to sunburns while others get tan. It all comes down to genetics!

Regardless if you’re getting burned or tan, it is still a sign of cellular damage being done to your skin, which is what ultimately leads to skin cancer. The more your skin is unprotected, the more your skin’s cells can become swollen, red, and painful (AKA a sunburn). There are varying degrees to sunburns anywhere from mild ones to blisters. 

Severe burns with blisters need medical attention so don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment to be evaluated and treated.

Dos: Tips for Soothing a Sunburn

After you get sunburned, your skin may start to peel. This is because your body is trying to get rid of all the damaged cells. Here are the things you SHOULD do:

  • Hydrate - You should prioritize hydrating both the inside AND outside of your body. You of course want to cool the burn down topically. However, burns also draw fluid to your skin’s surface, it takes the fluid away from the rest of your body. So, you may quickly become dehydrated. You should focus on replenishing your fluids immediately while your skin takes the time to heal.
  • Take a cool shower for 3-5 minutes - Water and heat dry out the skin so limit the time and temperature. Also avoid harsh soap. Choose a fragrance-free body wash like Vanicream.
  • After the shower while skin is still damp, use a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer - Your skin cells need gentle products to help aid their recovery. Moisturizers with ceramides and cholesterol are considered best to replenish damaged skin, but I’ve found that frequent application seems to be more important. We like to avoid petroleum or oil-based ointments since these may trap the heat and make the burn worse; there’s always a caveat though I love the Aquapahor Healing Ointment Spray since it provides a thin layer of thick moisturizer to protect damaged skin without being occlusive.
  • Using gels with an aloe base are generally considered safeSun Bum creates an aloe gel that I love to use. It is a great resource to use to calm, comfort, and help decrease inflammation. Remember, with compromised skin even gentle products can cause discomfort and should be avoided if this occurs.
  • Use cool compresses with clean washcloths - These help with discomfort. It’s best to use them on top of the moisturizer or aloe gel. Put the clean, wet washcloths in the refrigerator before using them.
  • STAY OUT OF THE SUN - You do not want to damage your skin any further. Once you suspect the damage you should get out of the sun. Don’t forget to wear your protective UPF clothing!
  • Other remedies - Sunburns can be very uncomfortable! You can take over the counter anti-inflammatory pain relievers to try to reduce pain and inflammation.

PRO TIP - store any moisturizers or lotion you plan to use in the refrigerator for extra cooling comfort!

Don'ts: Mistakes to Avoid When Treating a Sunburn

While it may be tempting, you should never do these things when trying to recover from a sunburn:

  • Never ever pick at or peel your sunburn. Let it heal on its own! - Picking at your skin, while it may provide temporary satisfaction, will only cause more damage. The skin underneath is not ready to be exposed to the elements yet. It is still in the healing process. By removing the skin prematurely, you are increasing your risk of scarring and infection.
  • Use harsh skincare products - Your skin is healing, be gentle with it! Any products you use should be gentle and aid in the healing journey. I suggest using: Epionce Enriched Firming Mask or Avene Thermal Spring Water for the face.
  • Wear tight or ill-fitting clothing - Your comfort is key. Try not to wear any clothing that is tight or causes too much contact or chafing with the skin. Also, beware of any strong fragrances or detergents; those can quickly irritate the damaged skin.
  • Soak in the tub - Water and heat dry out our skin, so soaking in a long, hot bath are the worst, especially for damaged skin like after a sunburn. A short, cool shower is beneficial and always follow with a fragrance-free moisturizer on damp skin within 3 minutes of exiting the water.

Prevention: How to Avoid Sunburns in the Future

The goal is never to have to deal with sunburns! With the proper planning and products, you can increase your odds of never getting sunburns in the future. Anytime you are planning to be in the sun, you should apply (at least) SPF 30. Don’t forget your protective clothing! It makes a difference and helps provide broader coverage for your skin. Wearing clothing is also easier than properly applying sunscreen in my opinion!

While you can’t avoid the sun altogether, you should definitely seek shade during peak sunlight hours. This will reduce your risk significantly. And, of course, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! 

My advice? Learn from your past burns! Do all the right things and make that sunburn your last. While your sunburns will eventually fade, don’t forget that damage to your skin is done - both cosmetically and medically speaking!

Make sure to schedule an appointment at your local dermatology office for a complete skin examination. Sunburns greatly increase the chances of abnormal changes in our skin cells, which are also known as cancer. Some types of skin cancer have precancerous lesions that can be caught early, so it’s worthwhile to get a check to prevent numerous biopsies and surgeries.

In the meantime, learn from your burn and make this one your last! While your burn will heal, the damage is done, so take care to prevent sunburn – not just at the beach or pool, but every day – by seeking the shade, applying broad-spectrum sunscreen and wearing protective clothing.

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