We asked dermatologists if coconut oil is the sunburn remedy you've been missing.

By Emily Shiffer
July 10, 2019
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It's happened to the best of us—a pink and painful sunburn. Whether you forgot to apply sunscreen (or missed a spot here and there), you know the agony that comes with a bad burn. Your skin is on fire, super sensitive, and repels any clothing that touches it. Needless to say, a bad burn leaves you desperate for any remedy that promises relief. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Coconut Oil)

Beyond the classic aloe or after-sun spray, you may have heard that there's another remedy some swear by: coconut oil. We already know you can use the stuff on everything from your hair to your teeth—but can it really help cure a bad sunburn? (Related: Can You Use Coconut Oil As Lube?)

Well, yes and no.

"Immediately after a sunburn, your skin is burned—literally—which means it's going to be hot," says Noelani González, M.D., dermatologist and director of cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai West. "Applying an oil over burned skin can trap even more of that heat and worsen the burn."

Translation: A thick oil like coconut oil definitely shouldn't be applied in the immediate aftermath of a sunburn.

Instead, you should follow the guidelines set by the American Academy of Dermatology for treating a new and painful sunburn, which is to apply a damp towel on your skin for 10-15 minutes or take a cool shower or bath.

"Take cooler showers or preferably a bath, pat yourself dry leaving a bit of water on your skin, and apply a moisturizer on top to trap water in your skin," says Michael Kassardjian, D.O., board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles. "Use moisturizers that contain aloe vera, ceramides, soy, or oatmeal, which are all soothing on burns. If necessary, use hydrocortisone cream in conjunction to reduce inflammation." (Related: How to Boost Your Skin Barrier and Why You Need To)

And pay attention to the label of any creams or moisturizers you may apply since some can make your sunburn worse. "Always avoid moisturizers that contain petrolatum jelly since this can trap heat and worsen the burn," says Dr. González. "Lidocaine and benzocaine should also be avoided, as they could potentially irritate your already irritated skin."

Also, keep in mind that sunburn causes dehydration, so make sure you are drinking enough water afterward as well.

Here's where we have some good news in the coconut oil department. Once your skin has had a few days to recover, you're good to slather the stuff on, to help your skin heal and bounce back to its normal state.

"After the initial phase of the sunburn fades away, meaning you've cooled off your skin, and now it starts to either peel or get scaly, you can use coconut oil to moisturize your skin and help relieve any itching and dryness," says Dr. González. "Coconut has a few fatty acids in it, such as lauric acid and linoleic acid, which studies show can reduce inflammation while helping to restore the skin's moisture barrier." In other words, it's an awesome tool to have for sunburnt skin, but once it's past the hot and painful stage.

When it comes to choosing the best coconut oil, Dr. González suggests using pure virgin coconut oil and sticking with the most natural option you can find, void of any chemicals or preservatives. (And always try a test spot before applying it all over your body to check for any reactions or irritation, she adds.)

Some to try? Solimo Organic Virgin Coconut Oil (Buy It, $8, amazon.com) and Nutiva Organic Cold-Pressed Virgin Coconut Oil (Buy It, $17, amazon.com)

"Apply twice a day, ideally right after you shower to help trap in all that moisture," she suggests.