You come home from a day at the beach after slathering on sunscreen every couple hours, only to find parts of your face and body are beet red. Ouch! We’ve all been there. No matter how well you think you’re applying (and reapplying!) sunscreen this summer, sunburns happen to the best of us. In fact, according to 2015 research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adults in the U.S. reported having a sunburn in the previous 12 months, even though 71 percent of adults said they usually or always take sun protection measures like wearing sunscreen or seeking shade.
Why’d I get sunburned? And what is a sunburn, exactly?
A sunburn is your skin’s response to prolonged, unprotected exposure to UV radiation (UVB rays in particular). “Ultraviolet rays in sunlight directly damage DNA and other molecules in the skin,” says Anna Guanche, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Bella Skin Institute. “The broken-down and damaged skin cells signal the body, just as they would with any other type of skin burn. Then blood vessels dilate in order to bring healing factors and cells to the skin and an inflammatory response is what you see.” A sunburn usually appears about six hours after sun exposure, says Guanche. While the redness and pain associated with a sunburn are temporary (three to five days for the typical sunburn or seven days for one that’s more severe, says Guanche), the cellular damage lasts a lifetime. According to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, an overall history of severe sunburns was associated with an increased risk of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Of course, being super diligent with your sun protection is key to avoiding sunburns (and potentially skin cancer down the road), but if you have a sunburn, you’re probably looking for a way to relieve the irritation, like, right this second. While sunburn relief products are available, a study published in the Archives of Dermatology found that hydrocortisone cream—just one example of an OTC sunburn treatment—did not have much of an effect on sunburn when applied six to 23 hours after sun exposure. Natural remedies for sunburns usually involve cooling and soothing the skin, says Guanche. If you’re concerned about the ingredients, cost, or efficacy of OTC creams, you may want to consider a natural sunburn remedy instead.
The Best Natural Remedies for Sunburns
Ready for relief? Try one of these natural remedies, all of which are suitable for mild to moderate sunburns. “Consult a doctor if your sunburn is severe,” says Guanche, sharing that severe sunburn can involve any of the following:
- Sunburn that covers a large portion of the body
- Headache pain
And while these natural remedies for sunburns are generally safe for pregnant women and kids, Guanche says it’s best to consult your doctor just to be sure before trying anything if you’re pregnant or intend to use a natural remedy on a child. Once you’re good to go, apply your natural remedy of choice two to three times a day for maximum benefits.
Ah, the gold standard in sunburn relief. Aloe has been used for centuries to heal skin, and for good reason. A study published in the Annals of Plastic Surgery stated that topical aloe vera improves wound healing and minimizes scarring. Julie DeMaio, an herbalist who specializes in skincare, says aloe would be her first choice for soothing a sunburn. She suggests buying a giant aloe leaf, which you can find in a grocery or health food store. Use the back of a spoon to scrape the inner gel of the plant out and apply it directly to your skin. According to DiMaio, you can use it on both your face and body. “Keep the leaf in the fridge through the lifetime of your burn,” says DeMaio.
2. Witch Hazel
“Witch hazel is a plant, but only the leaves, bark, and twigs, are used medicinally,” explains Marina Peredo, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skinfluence. “It contains chemicals called tannins which, when applied directly to the skin, can help reduce swelling, repair damaged skin, and ward off nasty bacteria.” Peredo is a fan of Dickinson’s Witch Hazel, which can be used on face and body. Apply to a cotton ball and gently rub it over your sunburned skin. A study published in the European Journal of Pediatrics found that [linkbuilder id=”6458″ text=”witch hazel”] was equally as effective as a prescription moisturizer for treating skin conditions (like diaper rash and burns) in children.
3. Apple Cider Vinegar
“Consider a diluted apple cider vinegar bath,” says Dendy Engelman, MD, dermatologic surgeon at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery Centers. “Try adding a cupful or two to your bath to neutralize the burn. After soaking for 10 minutes, the apple cider vinegar will have helped restore your skin’s pH levels and your skin will feel cool and soothed.” Engelman says that if you’re going to apply apple cider vinegar to your face, you need to be careful to avoid your eye area because it can be irritating. “Soak a paper towel or washcloth and gently press [it on your] face instead of splashing,” she says.
4. Whole Milk
“The fat and the pH factor [of whole milk] has an anti-inflammatory effect on sunburned skin, says Peredo. Make a compress by submerging small cotton towels in cool whole milk and wringing the excess, then apply the towel to your face and/or body. As long as you don’t have a milk allergy, this natural sunburn remedy is safe for pregnant women and children, says Peredo.
5. Vitamin E Oil
“It’s important to treat the sunburn with products that have ingredients like vitamin E, which helps the skin heal,” says Engleman. She likes Bio-Oil Multiuse Skincare Oil for treating mild to moderate sunburns on the face or body because the vitamin E neutralizes free radicals (molecules that are damaging to the skin) and it also contains nourishing and calming ingredients like chamomile oil, calendula oil, and rosemary.
Remember taking oatmeal baths to soothe itchy chicken pox when you were younger? Guanche says oatmeal baths can help ease the pain associated with a mild to moderate sunburn on your face or body. She likes Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment, which helps relieve irritation and itchiness temporarily. All you have to do is pour a single packet into your bath and lightly rub the oatmeal onto your skin. Just make sure your bath water isn’t too warm, says Guanche, since this can cause further irritation.
7. Lavender Oil
Lavender oil can offer relief from sunburns, says DeMaio. Look for lavender oil in hydrosol mist form, like Plant Therapy’s Organic Lavender Hydrosol. Hydrosol is the liquid that is left over when a plant is turned into an essential oil, and it’s typically less concentrated, says DeMaio, meaning it can soothe without irritating. Because hydrosols aren’t quite as highly concentrated as essential oils, you can apply them to your face as well as your body. DeMaio likes spritzing a lavender hydrosol onto a sunburn a few minutes after applying aloe.
8. Coconut Oil
“Coconut oil may soothe and hydrate the skin,” says Guanche. According to a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, coconut oil can help improve skin barrier function and promote wound healing. Plus, a study published in the journal Dermatitis found that the application of extra virgin coconut oil significantly improved skin dryness. Mix a few drops of an essential oil like lavender into coconut oil before applying it to your face or body, says DeMaio.
9. St. John’s Wort
“As an infused oil, St. John’s wort is amazing for burns,” says DeMaio. “It’s an analgesic, which means it helps reduce the pain associated with sunburns.” A study published in the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine found that applying a St. John’s wort ointment topically to skin helped improve psoriasis lesions. DeMaio says St. John’s wort is particularly useful at the beginning of a sunburn (whether on the face or body) when the pain is at peak levels. As with lavender, try mixing a few drops of St. John’s wort into coconut oil, or another carrier oil like jojoba, to dilute it so that you can apply it directly to your skin, says DeMaio. You can also find St. John’s wort in hydrosol form, although it’s less common than the oil.
This little-known herb is actually a major sunburn soother. “Helichrysum is an incredible wound healer and skin regenerator,” says DeMaio. It’s great for damaged skin.” A study published in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents explains that helichrysum, which comes from a shrub in the Mediterranean, has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. The only downside is that helichrysum is expensive, so you may just want to use it on your face or an area that’s exposed, as opposed to a large area of skin, says DeMaio. Again, mix it with a carrier oil first since, as with all essential oils, it’s potent on its own.
11. Peppermint Tea
“Peppermint is a cooling herb,” says DeMaio. Make a gallon of iced peppermint tea, dip a cotton ball into it, and gently rub it onto your skin wherever you’re burned, she suggests. “You can also address a sunburn from the inside,” says DeMaio. “When you’re burned, your skin is dehydrated, so it’s just as important to make sure you’re increasing liquids.” So try sipping on a glass of peppermint tea, too. The bottom line: While these natural remedies for sunburn can be used to help relieve the pain and irritation associated with mild to moderate sunburns, head to a doc STAT if your burn is more serious. And do not, we repeat, do not go back into the sun while you’re still burned as doing so can lead to even more skin damage!