When you’re left with a scorchingly painful sunburn after an SPF slip-up, reverse the damage with skin-healing tips from a top dermatologist
Maybe you fell asleep on a blanket while soaking in that vitamin D, or maybe you spent a little too much time in the waves without reapplying SPF. Any way you slice it, it's not uncommon to step inside after hours in the sun to find yourself with burnin' red skin.
Sunburn, as you probbably know, is the result of UV rays' damage, says NYC-based dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D. "When you get a sunburn, a whole cascade of ill effects takes place: free radicals are released, which start 'unzipping' the cell-membrane layer, causing premature cellular death," she explains.
Worse, says Engelman, your DNA is damaged as UV light creates mismatches in the pairing system, which ultimately leads to mutations and skin cancers down the road. (See more Scary Medical Diagnoses Young Women Don't Expect.)
Expect, that's probably not what you're thinking about when you're dealing with the post-burn shivers and sensitivity. In fact, it's pretty hard to focus on anything else when your skin is scorched—ow! But you also want to counteract that damage you sustained. Here's how to heal up that sunburn faster and more effectively.
What to Do After You Burn
Your mission: Halt the inflammation. "You want to do everything you can to stop the inflammatory cascade that a sunburn causes," says Engelman. Right after a burn, she says, you should be popping NSAIDs like ibuprofen, using cool compresses to soothe and remove heat from skin, and pumping antioxidants into your system.
Aloe vera is a proven anti-inflammatory, used widely as a treatment for burns. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, a lotion with aloe in it is your best bet. This will prevent major peeling and soothe red, itchy skin. Just avoid any formulations with petroleum, benzocaine, or lidocaine, which are ingredients that trap heat in the skin and further irritate the burn.
Engelman also recommends oral and topical antioxidants to heal up quicker. "You can take vitamins C and E to protect against free radical damage, and topical antioxidants like vitamin C and ferulic acid to counter skin damage," she says. "Antioxidants are so great because they insert themselves in the cell membrane and can protect those cells from early death."
There are also some key foods you can incorporate to help your body heal up. Try drinking polyphenol-rich green tea to protect skin from further sun damage and improve skin quality, or nosh on salmon, nut butters, and canola oil—one study showed that consuming omega-3s may reduce UV-related cancer risk.
If It Burns Real Bad
Let's say you were out a long time in that sunshine—thanks, Fourth of July festivities!—and your skin is absolutely aching. Call your derm stat. Engelman says you can get LED light treatments, which will help boost skin repair and soothe the burn. In addition, your derm may be able to prescribe you something for the discomfort. "Mild cortisone creams twice daily can help, as well as my favorite: Biafine burn cream," she says. "It's amazing, but you usually need a prescription."
If your sunburn is blistering, or accompanied by fever, chills, vision changes, or cognitive difficulties, see your doctor right away. "These symptoms may be a sign of more dangerous conditions like heat stroke," says Engelman. (And next time, slather on that SPF! Stay covered with 20 Sun Products to Help Protect Your Skin.)