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Sunburn: How to Treat It, and How We Misunderstand It

Sunburn: How to Treat It, and How We Misunderstand It

Even in this era of increased awareness about the risks of sun exposure, people still get sunburned. Once you’re burned, you may believe that it’s too late to do anything about it. However, dermatologists say there are some important steps you can take to ease the pain, promote healing, and limit long-term damage to your skin.

Below are some basic steps you can take to treat sunburn, as recommended by the experts, and we also discuss some misconceptions about sun exposure that can help you avoid another burn:

  • Seek shade or shelter. Sometimes those minutes or hours by the pool seem to fly by, and you might notice that your forearms and thighs have reddened. When that happens, get inside, or least find a fully shaded area. You should avoid direct sunlight the rest of the day, even with sunscreen and/or protective clothing.
  • Begin hydrating. Even if you’ve already been drinking water during outdoor activities or while relaxing at the poolside, your sunburned skin needs more hydration than usual. Give it what it needs, and plenty of it.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers right away. You need medication that addresses the cause of the pain, which in the case of sunburn is inflammation. Take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication as soon as possible, because it is most effective if taken long before the inflammation is at its worst. Continue taking the medication until your sunburned skin is well into the healing process.
  • Use a cold compress. Dampen a towel, wrap it around an ice pack or bag of ice, and gently apply it to painful areas to relieve heat.
  • Take a cool or room-temperature shower. A soothing rinse can go a long way toward relieving the burning sensation. Don’t scrub, though. Loofah sponges, gritty exfoliating soaps, and even a washcloth may irritate damaged skin. Use a gentle body wash or mild shampoo that has no sulfates or fragrances for your next few showers.
  • Use a moisturizer immediately after showering. Use the lightest formula you can find, since thick creams or gels may trap heat. Fragrance-free aloe and vitamin-rich lotions will nourish the skin. Avoid products containing benzocaine, menthol, alcohol, and petroleum.
  • Use sunscreen, and wear protective clothing. For the next few days, you should try to reduce your sun exposure to near zero. Even after limiting your vacation activity to shopping trips, restaurant visits, or car rides, you need maximum sun protection while healing.
  • Leave blisters alone, and resist the urge to peel flaking skin. You can’t do anything with your hands that will promote the healing of blistered skin, but you may do more damage. If you help flaking skin come off of your body, more than likely you will tear some blistered skin that is not ready to come off. This will interrupt, not assist, the recovery process.
  • Wear light, loose clothing. Damaged, sensitive skin needs breathing room and doesn’t need constant rubbing. Wearing skinny jeans, leggings, and yoga pants won’t promote sunburn recovery.
  • See a doctor if things get worse. It may take a few hours for severe sunburn symptoms to begin. If you begin having fever, chills, dizziness, large blisters, or unbearable pain, your sunburn is serious enough for an emergency room or urgent care clinic visit. Those symptoms usually mean you need to be treated for dehydration, and you may even have some second-degree burns.
  • Think of your skin’s future. In the interest of long-term health, simply getting past the suffering from sunburn is not enough. Make an appointment to talk with your dermatologist about the best ways to heal from sunburn and limit future damage to your skin. A dermatologist can diagnose the severity of any damage, recommend appropriate skin care products, and advise you on how to enjoy the sun while still avoiding sunburn, skin cancer, early aging, and other skin damage.
  • Don’t ever do this again. Frequent or consistent sunburn can lead to serious skin health issues later in life, not to mention the purely cosmetic damage you may experience. The single best thing you can do is commit to never get sunburned again.

Myths & Misconceptions

Most people know that unprotected sun exposure is bad and that sunscreen is essential, yet health care workers say severe sunburn often is the result of misconceptions about the details. A few of those misconceptions are explored below.

“I was in direct sunlight only for 15 minutes or so.” That’s a remark health care professionals often hear from patients with sunburn. But 15 minutes is actually five minutes longer than it takes to begin getting burned by unprotected exposure to intense UVB rays (ultraviolet B, the type of rays that burn skin).

“I was in the sun only a few times, and only about 10 minutes each time, but I still burned.” UVB exposure is cumulative, especially when the summer sun’s rays are at their most direct, from 11 am to 3 pm. You can rack up an hour or more of total exposure in small increments without realizing it.

“I switched from SPF 15 sunscreen to SPF 45 to triple my protection.” The sun protection factor (SPF) rating for sunscreen products can be misunderstood. An SPF 15 product can block almost 94% of UVB rays, SPF 30 products block nearly 97%, and SPF 45 products block about 98%. So while SPF 45 offers more protection than SPF 15 does, the increase in UVB resistance doesn’t translate to “three times the protection.” Therefore, you can’t stay in the sun three times longer without risk.

“I was under an umbrella all day, how did this happen?” Unfortunately, umbrellas and open tents won’t provide full protection if you’re outside all day. Sand, water, and poolside or deck surfaces reflect UVB rays, but you can’t feel them (it’s the sun’s infrared radiation, not UVB rays, that warms you). In other words, it’s possible to stay cool while getting burned. This also explains how you can get sunburned on an overcast day at the beach.


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