You know the feeling: one minute you’re hanging at the beach or on a sunny rooftop with a friend and then the next, your friend leans in to examine you a little closer and announces that you’re looking a little red. What she meant to say was lobster-like.
Your first instinct may be to apply more sunscreen or to run for a shady patch of land to stop that sunburn in its tracks before it gets worse, but once and for all, here’s the best course of action:
“If you’re near a cold pool, lake or ocean, take a quick dip to cool your skin, but only for a few seconds so you don’t prolong your exposure,” says Zondra Wilson, president and CEO of Blu Skin Care. “Then cover up and get out of the sun immediately. Continue to cool the burn with cold compresses. You can use ice to make ice water for a cold compress, but don’t apply ice directly to the sunburn. Or take a cool shower or bath, but not for too long because it can be drying, and avoid harsh soap, which might irritate the skin even more.” After cooling your skin, be sure to apply a gentle moisturizing lotion while your skin is still and repeat this process to keep burned or peeling skin moist over the next few days. One note of caution: avoid petroleum or oil-based ointments, which may trap the heat and make the burn worse.
If your sunburn is so bad that you’re skin is broken, see a doctor immediately. “The only lotion that should ever be applied to broken or blistered skin is an antibiotic ointment,” says cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Kally Papantoniou.
If your skin is still feeling dry and sore after cooling it down and applying a hydrating moisturizer, consider these treatments:
1. Decrease the inflammation. At the first sign of sunburn, taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin, can help with discomfort and inflammation. “You can continue with the NSAIDs as directed until the burn feels better,” Wilson says. “You can also use a 1% over-the-counter cortisone cream as directed for a few days to help calm redness and swelling. Aloe vera may also soothe mild burns and is generally considered safe. Wear loose, soft, breathable clothing to avoid further skin irritation, and stay out of the sun.”
2. Replenish your fluids. Drink up! Keeping hydrated will help your sunburn heal and keep you from getting sick. “Burns draw fluid to the skin’s surface and away from the rest of the body, so you may become dehydrated,” Wilson says. “It’s important to rehydrate by drinking extra liquids, including water and sports drinks that help to replenish electrolytes, immediately and while your skin heals.”
3. Consider natural remedies. There’s a good chance you already have everything you need in your fridge and pantry to help soothe your sunburn. A mixture of skim milk 1:4 parts water can be applied with cloths to soothe sunburned skin and is a remedy that can be very calming, Papantoniou says. Other great natural ingredients include oatmeal, which can be blended together with water or a milk and water paste that is applied to the skin, cucumbers (simply slice and apply directly to a sunburn), and chamomile, which should be cooled first and applied with tea cloths.
4. Seek medical treatment if necessary. If you really lost track of time and are now truly suffering from a horrendous sunburn, you may need to visit your doctor. “You should seek medical help if you or a child has severe blistering over a large portion of the body, has a fever and chills, or is woozy or confused,” Wilson says. “Don’t scratch or pop blisters, which can lead to infection. Signs of infection include red streaks or oozing.”
For more beauty news and tips, check out the right way to apply sunscreen and how to check your moles before going to a dermatologist.
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