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The Best Treatments for Sunburn, According to Dermatologists

Photo-Illustration: Dreamworks Pictures

A version of this story originally appeared on the Strategist U.S.

We all know by now that wearing sun cream every day is crucial. But even the most diligent SPF-wearer can slip up sometimes. Maybe you went in the water too soon after applying, forgot to reapply, left your UV-protective clothes and sun hat at home, or just took a longer beach nap than you planned. Whatever the reason, sunburns can happen even when we try to prevent them — but there are lots of ways to soothe the pain while you wait for one to heal, according to the dermatologists and spa representative we spoke to.

The first thing to do if you get burnt is to get out of the sun, according to dermatologist Dr. Tobechi Ebede from Plaza Park Dermatology. “The normal skin-protection barrier protection is compromised, and symptoms will only get worse if you continue to stay outdoors,” Ebede says. And once inside, be sure to hydrate. “Drink lots of water to replenish the loss that will happen as the skin pulls fluid from the internal organs to heal itself,” she says. After retreating to a cool place and downing a unhealthy amount of water, it’s time for some soaking, cool compressing, and other treatments to help soothe the pain. Below, all the stuff our experts recommend using to do so (though, if your sunburn is really painful, or turning into blisters, they say to call a doctor first.)

Overall best sunburn treatment

There are plenty of over-the-counter remedies for sunburns, but if you’re only going to choose one, the majority of the dermatologists we spoke to recommend hydrocortisone cream. Dr. Dhaval G. Bhanasuli of Hudson Dermatology & Laser Surgery says that cortisone helps “calm things down quick” after a burn. Dr. Michele Green, a Manhattan-based dermatologist, also recommended hydrocortisone, noting that you can get it either over-the-counter or as a prescription, and that it’s effective for “soothing pain and irritation from a sunburn.” Whether you go OTC or prescription should depend on the severity of the sunburn. “Prescription topical hydrocortisone creams can be very effective in treating sunburns,” says Dr. David Avram of Heights Dermatology and Laser in Brooklyn. “They are potent anti-inflammatory creams that can soothe sunburns rapidly. So if the sunburn is intense see your primary-care physician or dermatologist.”

Best soaking treatment for sunburn

One of the first things you should do after getting a sunburn is take a cool shower, according to many of the experts that we spoke to. A cold shower is “refreshing on sunburned skin, and won’t make your skin dry or cause further irritation,” says Green. If you’re more of a bath person, Kim Zimmerman, of Rescue Spa in Philadelphia, suggests spending some time soaking with St. John’s Wort Bath. You may have heard of St. John’s Wort as an herb that you can take orally for depression, but Zimmerman told us that, within the herbal-healing community, it’s considered a great topical treatment for sunburns (and other burns, too). The Susanne Kaufmann St. John’s Wort bath has sodium bicarbonate (a.k.a. baking soda), which Zimmerman says “helps regulate and balance the body’s pH” and cornstarch, which she calls “a way-back-when DIY remedy for sunburn.”

Best pantry cure for sunburn

Like cornstarch, oatmeal is another classic sunburn treatment that the experts still recommend. Green calls oatmeal “a great product for sunburn,” and says that you can also mix it with cold milk as a compress to soothe sunburned skin. Dr. Neil Sadick of Sadick Dermatology agrees, specifically suggesting soy milk, because it “is a natural anti-inflammatory and soothes the skin post-sun exposure.” After you combine the oatmeal and milk, just put the paste on some gauze and apply gently to your sunburn. “The oatmeal’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties prevents itching, which makes it great for applying on sunburns,” Green explains. Sadick says to apply an oatmeal-milk compress to “to the affected area for 20 minutes, two times a day.” If you want the benefits of oatmeal without raiding your pantry, Aveeno makes a Soothing Bath Treatment formulated with oatmeal (but not milk) that comes in easy-to-use packets, and can also be used to relieve other summer ailments, like heat rash and itchy bug bites. It’s also less expensive than the above St. John’s Wort soak.

Best oral pain reliever for sunburn

Popping an ibuprofen or other NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) can also be helpful if you have a sunburn, according to several of the dermatologists we spoke to. But don’t bother with any pills that promise to prevent sunburn, according to Dr. Jennifer MacGregor of Union Square Laser Dermatology, who notes that if you do take ibuprofen, you should only take it for “the first twenty-four hours after a sunburn.” Ebede seconds the ibuprofen recommendation, and says, “Ibuprofen or any NSAID works wonders for the swelling and inflammation.”

Best lotions, gels, and ointments for sunburn

Sadick told us that after you apply the cool compress to your sunburn, you can moisturise with Sarna lotion, which will “expedite healing and further soothe the skin.” He also notes that Sarna’s ingredient list includes camphor and menthol, both helpful for healing burns. “Camphor helps to reduce itching and irritation while the menthol works to soothe and cool the skin,” Sadick says.
[Editor’s note: Unofortunately, Sarna isn’t available in the UK, but this option from Aveeno also contains camphor.]

It wouldn’t be a list of sunburn treatments without the classic remedy: aloe vera gel. Bhanasuli says that he usually tells patients “just to grab 100% aloe gel from the local pharmacy.” He says that in general, the shorter the ingredient list, the better. “When skin is compromised, you want to minimize changes of irritation or allergy, so as they say, less is more.” This 100 percent aloe gel comes recommended by Rio, who included it in her list of preferred after-sun products.

“I like Sun Bum Cool Down After Sun Hydrating Gel,” says Avram. “This has aloe vera mixed with vitamin E and tea-tree oil. These all help reduce inflammation caused by the sunburn. It has a nice cooling effect when applied especially if refrigerated prior to application.” Sun Bum also makes a Cool Down After Sun Lotion, which was recommended by dermatologists for after-sun use (but not necessarily sunburn care).

Avram also recommends using CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion. The lotion “contains both hyaluronic acid and ceramides that help restore hydration to the skin,” which he says is “key after sunburns.” CeraVe’s Moisturizing Cream was also recommended by a dermatologist we talked to about post-sun skin care tips, and other experts recommended the brand as one of the best makers of inexpensive sunscreens available at most drugstores.

Bhanusali seconds the hyaluronic acid recommendation, saying that when used over a large area it “works well to retain moisture and prevent water loss through the compromised skin.” He likes Neutrogena’s gel moisturizer with hyaluronic acid because it’s “light, works well, and is pretty inexpensive.” He suggests moisturizing three to four times a day: “Essentially, the more moist, the quicker the healing.”

If spray-on moisture is more your style, you might want to try this one. “I love Aquaphor Ointment Body Spray moisturiser,” Ebede says. “It’s easy to apply and keeps skin from feeling chapped and dry. When I suffered my own sunburn in Maui last year, I used this daily and it was a lifesaver.”

Best aesthetician-grade tool for soothing sunburn

For something a little fancier, Zimmerman recommends Biologique Recherche’s cryo-sticks. “The main thing that the cryo-sticks do is help absorb some of the heat in the skin caused by the sunburn, which in turn can help to decrease inflammation,” she says. You can leave the cryo-sticks in your freezer so they’re always ready to use, and they can also double as a remedy for puffy eyes or cystic acne. Zimmerman says that you can simply “slather on some aloe and gently glide the cryo-sticks over the sunburned areas for relief and cooling.”

And a Strategist-approved sun cream

Of course, the best way to avoid burning in the sun altogether is to wear sun cream. This lightweight, non-greasy option is a favourite of beauty editor Ava Welsing-Kitcher. “It feels like a body lotion, and it smells heavenly,” she says. “Being mixed-race, some SPFs can leave a white cast, but this adds a really lovely sheen to my skin.” As well as leaving a silky sheen on the skin, the sun cream has green credentials by foregoing harmful chemicals and coming packaged in a biodegradable bottle.

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The Best Treatments for Sunburn, According to Dermatologists