Suffering from sunburn? Here’s what to do and how to treat sunburnt skin
Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, as the Noel Coward song goes. The old cliché is often all too true, and as we flock to the beach to bask in the current heatwave, or head off on holiday, many of us will end up looking a little pink – or in some cases, painfully red – come sundown.
Even though we know we should be protecting our skin by seeking shade and applying SPF regularly, both the long-term sun damage and the immediate symptoms of sunburn (visibly red, hot, sore skin) is the price we pay for unchecked sunbathing.
Unfortunately for sun worshippers, experts agree that prevention is better than cure. The best way to relieve suffering is to avoid being sunburned in the first place – and according to Cancer Research UK, getting sunburnt just once every two years can triple your risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
However, it’s very easy to misjudge the intensity of the sun, especially if you’re busy having fun outside after the pressures of several lockowns.
So if you are already sunburnt, what can you do? Can after sun skincare prevent the damage done? Does cooling aloe vera really work? What are the best ways to effectively relieve the pain? What are the best products that won’t further irritate the skin?
The simple truth is there’s no “cure” for sunburn – the damage is already done – but thankfully, there are remedies which alleviate the symptoms; and after sun care has an important role to play in protecting the skin from further damage.
Hydration is key, as is cooling the skin, says Dyna Mansouri, aesthetic nurse and skincare specialist at Epilium and Skin, the French medical beauty clinic in Marylebone. “When you’re sunburnt, you lose a lot of moisture in the skin, so you need plenty of fluids: try to avoid too much caffeine or alcohol, as this can dehydrate you further,” she advises.
“Cold compresses also help to cool the skin down. Heat attracts heat and will render sunburn even worse, so it won’t heal as quickly, so avoid hot baths, showers, saunas, steam rooms and hot compresses. I would also recommend avoiding exfoliation for two weeks or more following sunburn, because the skin is so sensitive.”
The experts are in agreement when it comes to rehydrating: “Keeping the skin well hydrated and preventing dryness will aid speedier resolution of the sunburn injury,” adds Dr Asif Hussein, Medical Director at sk:n clinics. “The combination of sun, beach, sea water and chlorine will quickly dehydrate the skin – and dehydrated skin is more prone to sun damage, including burning and structural damage,” points out LloydsPharmacy pharmacist Pareena Patel.
With that in mind, we asked dermatologists, doctors and skincare experts to find out the best ways to deal with sunburn…
Soothe your skin with a cool, damp towel
“Use a cool, damp, refrigerated towel to take some of the heat out of your skin, and have frequent cool baths or showers to help relieve the pain,” recommends Dr Asif Hussein, medical director at sk:n clinics. Never rub sunburnt skin roughly: always treat it carefully.
“Once out of the shower, gently pat dry the skin but make sure it is left moist. Application of a moisturiser on moist skin after the shower will help to lock in the moisture.”
Slather sunburn with aloe vera
Experts are in accord when it comes to the natural healing and hydrating properties of aloe vera extract. Whether found in after sun products or squeezed straight from the plant, particularly when applied immediately, surburnt skin tends to be glad of its anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, antiseptic, and wound healing properties.
“Using a moisturiser that contains aloe vera is beneficial in the treatment of sunburnt skin in the immediate 24-48 hours after the injury,” says Dr Hussein. “Aloe vera is anti-inflammatory and will soothe pain and discomfort straight away when it comes into contact with the skin. Aloe vera gel is water soluble and has a relatively low chance of causing further irritation to sunburnt skin.”
According to LloydsPharmacy pharmacist Pareena Patel, aloe vera can also counter free radical damage. “I would always recommend using an after sun which contains aloe vera as one of the main ingredients, as it helps to cool and heal skin while simultaneously providing intense moisturisation.
“It also contains vitamins A, C and E, antioxidants which can help neutralise free radicals. Research has shown that 80 per cent of the skin’s free radical damage (which can contribute to damaged skin cells and premature skin ageing) is from exposure to the sun’s rays.” Some studies have even found that aloe vera can reduce the healing process of burns by up to nine days.
Refrigerate your moisturiser or after sun
It’s no myth that you should invest in a quality after sun moisturiser – and putting your after sun or moisturiser in the fridge is a simple trick to enhance the cooling effects and take the heat out of your skin.
For effective aftersun care, always look for a moisturizer containing vitamins C and E, recommends Dr Ross Perry of Cosmedics. Moisturising frequently can also help to prevent the peeling typically associated with sunburn.
Drink plenty of water to hydrate from within
“Sunburn increases dehydration, so drink plenty of water,” says Dr Hussein. “It’s crucial to maintain hydration levels with adequate fluid intake, and in really hot conditions drinking isotonic sports drinks (with replacement electrolytes) is a good idea.
“Sweating in hot climates causes us to lose both water and salts so replacing these is also important.“” Note that dehydrated skin may not always feel “dry”: this doesn’t mean that your skin isn’t dehydrated.
Try a weak over-the-counter steroid cream
“Use of an over the counter weak steroid cream such as 0.5 per cent or one per cent hydrocortisone cream (HC45) will help settle inflammation and soothe pain and discomfort in especially bad areas of sunburn,” suggests Dr Hussein.
Wear loose cotton clothing to avoid irritation
Letting the skin breathe by opting for natural, gentle fabrics such as linen or cotton rather than harsh, tight-fitting material which will rub against the skin will help to prevent further irritation.
Avoid these skincare ingredients
A soothing aftersun cream, spray or gel can help alleviate the burning sensation, cool the skin and reduce any inflammation, but there are some products you should avoid.
“Avoid greasy ointments or salves containing petrolatum in the immediate 24-48 hours post sunburn as this will cause retention of heat within the skin,” stresses Dr Hussein. “Avoid use of creams and gels containing local anaesthetics such as benzocaine or lidocaine as these will cause irritation of the sunburnt skin and increase inflammation slowing the healing process.”
Take painkillers for immediate relief
Experts agree that either over-the-counter Ibuprofen or paracetamol can relieve swelling and pain in the areas of skin affected. They are most effective in the first 24-48 hours post-injury, to ease discomfort.
Avoid further exposure to the sun
Stop UV exposure immediately to reduce further sun damage if you notice you are burning. “Stay out of the sun completely, especially when it’s at its peak, and get in the shade,” urges Dr Ross Perry of Cosmedics.
“If you’ve been sunburnt, you really need to allow your skin to heal. Take preventative measures to prevent further burning: this means wearing a minimum of SPF 30 and applying at least 20 minutes before heading outdoors. Reapply every two hours, more if you’re in the pool or playing sports and the skin is sweating. Wear UV protective swimwear and a wide-brimmed hat.”
According to the NHS, you should take precautions to cover sunburnt skin from direct sunlight until skin has fully healed.
Never pop sunburn blisters
“Blisters are a sign of more severe sunburn. This is effectively what we call a second-degree burn,” points out Dr Hussein.
“Blisters should not be popped because that makes the sunburn worse. They confer a natural protection to sun burnt skin and should be left to resolve on their own.” According to the NHS, you should also never scratch or try to remove peeling skin.
Know when to seek medical help
“If a large surface area of the skin has been affected, or if you feel dizzy, weak, nauseous, cold, or just not yourself, you must seek medical attention quickly. If any of these things happen go and seek emergency medical attention at your local Accident and Emergency,” stresses Dr Hussein.
You should seek advice from your GP or call NHS 111 is your skin is blistered or swollen, your temperature is very high, or you feel hot and shivery, if you feel very tired, dizzy and sick, if you have a headache and muscle cramps or if your baby or young child has sunburn.