How to treat sunburns the right way

How do you treat a sunburn fast? The best thing would be not to get one at all, but that doesn’t always work out. I learned the lesson the hard way…

“Gio, stay in the shade. And don’t take off your hat again!,” my mum said, as she put the damn thing on my head again.I hated that hat. It was an old, ugly red and blue thing that had obviously seen better days. None of my friends had to wear anything like that. Heck, they didn’t have to wear anything at all.

So, when my mum wasn’t looking, I’d dump it somewhere. Anywhere. It’s not like anything bad had ever happened. Sure, if my mum found out, she’d scold me, but mums always scold you. It’s their job. Then, one day, my friend asked me why I looked like a lobster. “Your face is all red,” he said. I thought he was being annoying, like young boys often are.

But, then, my face started to hurt. My skin began to peel. Ouch! I ran to my mum, who told me I had just got a sunburn. A sunburn?! While playing in a friend’s garden?! Wasn’t that something you only got at the beach? “A sunburn can happen anytime you spend too much time in the sun without protection,” my mum explains. “You haven’t been wearing your hat, have you?”

Sure, a hat doesn’t protect you as well as sunscreen does, but who the heck wore sunscreen anywhere but the beach in the 80s? And a hat would have helped somewhat. Mums do know best. Anyway, the damage was done. A good scolding – and trust me, I got one – wouldn’t fix it.

So, if like me, you accidentally got a sunburn after spending too much time playing in the sun without adequate protection, here’s everything you need to know about how to treat a sunburn and relieve the pain fast:

What Is A Sunburn?

First things first: what is a sunburn? A sunburn is hot, red, and sore skin caused by too much unprotected sun exposure. It isn’t the same as as when you burn your skin on something’s hot. It’s ultraviolet radiation, not heat, that does the damage and gives you a sunburn. This ultraviolet radiation triggers an inflammatory reaction that leads to a sunburn. After a few days, your sunburn starts to flake and peel, too. This is simply a sign your body is getting rid of damaged cells. Don’t peel! Let your body naturally heal itself.

Related: Take A Number: How To Choose The Right SPF For You

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Sunburn Symptoms: What Are They?

Think you’re getting a sunburn? Here are the common symptoms:

  • Redness
  • Skin feels hot to the touch
  • Pain
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Small fluid-filled blisters
  • Headache, fever, nausea and fatigue (if the sunburn is severe)

Symptoms of sunburns usually appear within a few hours after unprotected sun exposure. But it may take a day or two to determine its severity. After a few days, your skin starts to peel it too. It’s your body’s way of getting rid of damaged skin. Do NOT pick at it!

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What Causes A Sunburn?

You get a sunburn when you spend too much time in the sun without sunscreen. When ultraviolet radiation from the sun hits bare skin, it damages skin cells, causing mutations in their DNA. That’s why you need sunscreen. It prevents most of this damage (when used the right way).

All ultraviolet radiation is bad for skin. But when it comes to sunburns, it’s UVB rays that do the damage. Your body has a self-defence, in-build sunscreen mechanism to prevent sun damage. It’s called tanning. Yep, whenever your skin starts to get a little darker, it’s a sign your skin cells are getting damaged. You need to get out of the sun, pronto.

But this self-defence mechanism isn’t foolproof (and not just because us humans stupidly mistake tanning as a good thing – it’s NOT). When your skin gets more sun exposure than it can handle, the damage is so severe, it can’t be repaired. There’s only one way out: the damaged cells die off.

Blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow and deliver immune cells to the damaged area, where they can clean up the mess. Cue swelling, redness, and inflammation – all the usual signs of sunburns. The sunburn eventually heals on its own. But some of the mutated cells survive and may turn into cancer later on. Don’t risk it! Wear sunscreen.

Related: What’s The Difference Between UVA And UVB Rays?

Who Is More Likely To Get A Sunburn?

Anyone can get a sunburn. But the fairer your skin is, the higher the chance you’ll develop a sunburn if you’re not careful in the sun. Blame it on melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives your skin its beautiful, natural hue. It also helps protect your skin from UV rays. Melanin darkens your skin, causing a tan. A tan, like a sunburn, is ALWAYS a symptom of sun DAMAGE. The less melanin your skin produces, the higher the chance of a sunburn – and the more severe it will be. The more melanin your skin makes, the more you’ll tan before you sunburn – but you can still burn. Also, people who work or play sports outdoors regularly have a higher chance of developing a sunburn too.

Can You Get A Sunburn If You Have Dark Skin?

Yes, you can get a sunburn if you have dark skin. It’s true your skin tans easier, offering more protection against a burn (but NOT again wrinkles and cancer!). But your skin is still getting badly damaged. “You will either turn pinkish-red, or might not see the redness at all, but you’re still exposing skin to UV light—so it still causes cellular damage,” says Susan Chon, MD, a faculty member in the department of dermatology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.“And so even though the risk of damage is lower with darker skin, you can still experience long-term effects of sun exposure like aging and possibly increase your skin-cancer risk.” 

How Long Does A Sunburn Last?

It depends on its severity. If you have a mild sunburn, it’ll take around a few days to heal on its own. If your burn it more severe, it may require medical attention and will take longer to heal.

Can You Get A Sunburn Even If It’s Cloudy?

Yes. The sun varies in intensity by season, time of day, and country. The higher the UV index and the brighter the sun burns, the more likely you are to develop a sunburn. But that doesn’t mean that, if the sun isn’t shining brightly, you’re safe. UV rays can penetrate through clouds and even be reflected on snow. Wear your sunscreen all year round.

What Damage Does A Sunburn Cause?

A sunburn increases your skin of developing skin cancer. The more sunburns you get throughout your life, the higher the chance of getting it. But that’s not the only evil sunburns cause. “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,” says Dr Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine.

How To Treat A Sunburn

It’s difficult to make sunburn go away,” says Dr Gohara. “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.”

A sunburn may heal on its own, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer in silence in the meantime. There are many things you can do to relieve sunburn pain.

Here’s how to treat a sunburn fast:

1. Protect Your Sunburn

This should be a given, but I’ll say it anyway. If you’re experiencing a sunburn, don’t spend hours in the sun until it has completely healed. The damage’s done, so don’t make it worse. If you must go out, wear loose -fitting clothes that won’t irritate your skin. Tightly-woven fabrics are best, too. Here’s a trick to tell if it’s tight enough: when you hold the fabric up to a bright light, you shouldn’t see any light coming through. If it does, UV radiation will inflict even more damage to your sunburn.

2. Take Frequent Cool Baths/Showers

Taking frequent cold baths (or showers, if you don’t have time to lie in the bath tub for hours) is a quick way to relieve the pain. As soon as you get out of the shower of bathrobe, pat yourself dry gently with a soft towel – and make sure you leave a little water on your skin. Then, slather on moisturiser to trap water in. It’s a quick trip to ease the dryness.

3. Use A Moisturiser With Aloe Vera Or Colloidal Oatmeal

There’s a reason aloe vera has been a trusted staple in the treatment of sunburns for generations. Aloe Vera has anti-inflammatory properties that reduce inflammation, redness, and itching. Plus, it moisturises skin to boot.

Colloidal oatmeal (yep, it’s derived from oats) has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, too. According to NYC dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian: “Colloidal oatmeal is a natural anti-inflammatory. Those with incredibly sensitive skin such as eczema and atopic dermatitis can usually find relief and calm their skin by applying colloidal oatmeal lotion or taking baths that contain oatmeal.” It works just as well for sunburns. Plus, it protects skin from irritants, preventing external agents from upsetting your skin further.


  • Aveeno Bath Treatment ($6.97): If you can’t be bothered to ground your own colloidal oatmeal for your bath, get this treatment. Pour it into your bath water to relieve rashes, sunburns, eczema, and irritations. Available at iHerb and Walmart.
  • Benton Aloe Real Cool Soothing Gel ($8.00): Loaded with 93% Aloe Vera, this gel offers instant cooling relief to sunburned, dry, overheated, or sensitized skin fast. Available at Soko Glam, Stylevana and Yes Style.
  • Eucerin Eczema Relief Body Cream ($10.43): A moisturising cream with colloidal oatmeal, ceramides, and mineral oil to strengthen your skin’s protective barrier, reduce irritations, and soothe skin. Available at Walmart.

Related: Can Aloe Vera Treat Sunburns, Acne, And Stretch Marks?

4. Take An Anti-Inflammatory

This isn’t my fave way. I refrain from taking any type of medication whenever possible, preferring natural alternatives instead. But if you’re comfortable taking an anti-inflammatory, both aspirin and ibuprophen stop the inflammation and relieve sunburn pain pretty quickly.

5. Don’t Peel Off Skin Or Pop Blisters

Again, this is a given but I said it anyway. Don’t peel off skin. And don’t pop blisters, either. It only causes more damage. FIY, those blisters are there to protect the sensitive layers of skin underneath from infection. I know it’s tempting, but you’re just slowing down recovery when you peel and pop.

6. Drink Plenty Of Water

A sunburn can dehydrate your body by drawing floods away from your body and into your skin’s surface. For this reason, drink plenty of water and sports drinks that help to replenish electrolytes, to keep your body hydrated as it recovers from the burn.

7. Visit Your Doctor

Most people won’t need medical help for a sunburn. But if you have:

  • Severe blistering over a large potion of your bod
  • Open wounds
  • Chills
  • Confusion
  • Fever

Then see a doctor immediately. Don’t risk it.

How To Prevent A Sunburn

It may be too late to prevent this sunburn, but you can prevent a new sunburn from happening again. Here’s how to prevent a sunburn:

  1. Wear sunscreen: This is the most important thing you can do to prevent a sunrbun. A good sunscreen protects you from UV rays and neutralises them before they have the chance to wreak their damage on your skin and give you a sunburn (or wrinkles, or dark spots). Wear yours every day, rain or shine, and reapply regularly throughout the day.
  2. Seek the shade: When out in the sun, stay in the shade as much as you possibly can to prevent a sunburn.
  3. Wear a hat: Wear a tightly-woven, wide-brimmed hat that protects your face, including your ears and neck, from the damaging UV rays.
  4. Wear UPF clothing: Wearing tightly-woven fabrics that block UV rays further protects your skin from sun damage. Bonus points if you wear sunscreen underneath.
  5. Wear sunglasses: Your eyes need protection too. Plus, they’ll help you avoid crows’ feet.
  6. Avoid hottest hours: UV rays are stronger between 10am and 4pm in the afternoon. Try to stay out of the sun (and seek the shade as much as possible) during those hours. You’re more likely to burn then.


  • Drunk Elephant Umbra Tinte Physical Daily Defense SPF 30 ($36.00): A tinted mineral sunscreen that protects you from all UV rays without leaving a white cast behind. Best suitable for dry skin. Available at BootsCult BeautySpaceNK, and Ulta.
  • La Roche Posay Anthelios Clear Skin Dry Touch Face Sunscreen SPF 60 ($19.99): Ideal for oily skin, this lightweight sunscreen provides broad spectrum protection and absorbs excess oil for a matte finish. Available at BootsDermstoreLa Roche Posay, and Ulta.
  • Paula’s Choice Defense Essential Glow Moisturiser SPF30 ($26.40): Suitable for all skin types, this tinted mineral sunscreen provides broad spectrum protection, fights premature wrinkles, and dries to a luminous finish. Available at Cult BeautyPaula’s ChoiceSephoraSelfridges, and SpaceNK.
  • Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 50+ WetForce for Sensitive Skin and Children ($42.00): A high SPF, broad spectrum protection formula that’s gentle enough even for children and sensitive skin. It’s water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. Available at Sephora and Ulta.
  • Supergoop! Mineral Mattescreen SPF 40 ($38.00): A mineral sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum protection and dries to a silky matte finish. It also minimises the look o pores. It’s best suitable for oily and combination skin. Available at Blue MercuryNordstromRevolve, and Ulta.
  • Ultrasun Ultra Sensitive Very High SPF50+ Extreme Formula (£30.00): This sunscreen uses the new generation of chemical filters to provide broad spectrum protection without the irritation. Suitable for sensitive skin too. Available at BootsSephora, and SpacenK.

The Bottom Line

A sunburn is an inflammatory reaction that happens when you spend too much time in the sun. The best way to treat it is to soothe with cold baths and showers, moisturisers with aloe vera and colloidal oatmeal, and protecting yourself from further damage.