✓ Evidence Based

Sunburn Treatment and Relief the Right Way

Despite the plethora of health warnings about sun damage and UV rays, we still somehow manage to walk away from a lounge chair looking red like a lobster. Wanting to get a nice tan can often result in subjecting the skin to an excessive amount of the sun’s damaging UV rays.

Fortunately, there is no need to suffer any longer. There are many effective sunburn treatments that can help you get through the burning sensation and soothe that painfully irritating sunburned skin.

Treating Sunburn

Sunburn treatment

Sunburn treatment

Treatment for sunburn can relieve redness, inflammation, and pain. There are many remedies that can help with sunburn such as:

  • Applying cold compresses on the damaged skin.
  • Taking a cool bath to soothe the burning.
  • Using sunburn creams that contain ingredients such as menthol, aloe, and camphor.
  • Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen and ibuprofen to relieve the swelling and burning sensations.

Aside from this, there are many home remedies and lifestyle changes that can help to alleviate and eliminate sunburn altogether, such as avoiding the sun while sunburn is present and staying hydrated.

Home treatments are usually effective when it comes to minor sunburn, but one should consult a doctor immediately if experiencing more severe sunburn signs and symptoms. Some things to look for are:

  • Fever that reaches 102 degrees or higher
  • Constant chills
  • Sunburn blisters covering over 20% of the body
  • Severe pain
  • Excessive thirst and dehydration
  • Reduced urination
  • Fatigue and dizziness

Sunburn Prevention

The absolute best way to deal with sunburn is to prevent it altogether.  There are several things one can do to ensure sunburn prevention:

  • Stick to shady areas during the times when the sun’s rays are strongest, between 11 am and 4 pm (1, 2). If you don’t want to avoid the sun completely, you can always sunbathe when the sun is not as dangerous. You can still even get a nice tan!
  • Wear clothes that are sun-protective. Make sure that you cover your body with sun-protective clothing such as a broad-brimmed hat, UV-blocking sunglasses, and long-sleeve clothing
  • Always use sunscreen when exposed to sun rays. You should cover all areas of skin that could possibly be exposed to the sun with broad-spectrum sunscreen, which should protect you from both UVA and UVB rays if used properly (3, 4). At least one ounce of sunscreen should be used. Be sure to pick a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and apply it 30 minutes prior to being exposed to the sun. Sunscreen should be applied even when it is cloudy or overcast, as UV rays are known to penetrate the clouds (see more below).

You must be extremely careful when exposed to sun rays. It is very easy to underestimate the power of the sun, especially because the redness associated with sunburn does not develop until much later. Sometimes you may feel burning on your skin while still exposed, but in many cases, people get sunburned without even noticing.

How to use Sunscreen Effectively?

When you are purchasing sunscreen, you must make sure that it is of high quality and protects you from harmful rays. The use of poor-quality sunscreen can limit your defense from sunburn.

First, your sunscreen should block both UVA and UVB light radiation. The label of the sunscreen should have:

  • A circle logo with the letters UVA and UVB on it.
  • At least 4-star protection of UVA and UVB.

Second, make sure you are applying sunscreen properly. The majority of people suffer from sunburns because they do not apply enough sunscreen. The body needs approximately one ounce of lotion (5, 6). If the sunscreen is applied too thin, it will provide less protection. If you are concerned about not applying enough, you can always switch to another sunscreen that is stronger than the one you already use.

If you are planning on spending a significant amount of time in the sun, you should apply sunscreen twice before exposure, once approximately 30 minutes prior to going out and a second time just before stepping out (7, 8). Sunscreen should be applied to all skin areas that are exposed, including the face, the ears, and the neck. However, when it comes to the head, the best solution is a wide-brimmed hat.


Third, sunscreen should be re-applied several times, especially if exposed to water or sweat. If you are sweating or are in contact with water, make sure that you always use a water-resistant sunscreen. This type needs to be reapplied frequently, liberally and according to the given instructions. This includes applying sunscreen right after getting out of the water or after towel-drying or sweating.

People at a Greater Risk of Sunburn

Every person who is exposed to the sun and UV rays is at risk of sunburn. However, some people are more vulnerable and prone to getting sunburned than others.

Generally, you are at a higher risk of sunburn if you (9, 10, 11):

  • Have pale or light brown skin
  • Tend to burn rather than tan
  • Have red or fair hair
  • Have freckles
  • Have many moles
  • Have other skin problems
  • Are not exposed to the intense sun often
  • Have a family history of skin cancer or other skin-related conditions
  • Are exposed to the sun for longer periods of time

The sun is more intense at high altitudes. Keep in mind that you can also get sunburn from the sun’s reflection off of water, concrete, snow, and sand (12, 13). Always take the right precautions, even when you are not planning on being directly exposed to the sun’s UV rays.

The time and severity of skin burns vary from person to person. You can always check online for the skin type you have and check if you are at high risk of sunburn.

Sun Exposure in Infants and Children

Children that are under six months of age should not be exposed to direct, strong sunlight (14, 15). In the periods when the sun is dangerous (from 11 am to 4 pm), children should always be:

  • Covered with suitable clothing that does not allow the sun to penetrate.
  • Kept in the shade when possible.
  • Protected with strong sunscreen that is applied more frequently than it is in adults.
  • Given additional doses of Vitamin D, even if they are not directly exposed to the sun.

Long-term Risks of Sun Exposure

There are many short-term risks of sun exposure, including sunburn and allergic reactions. However, you should be aware of the long-term dangers associated with excessive sun exposure, including:

  • Skin cancer such as melanoma and non-melanoma (16)
  • Actinic keratoses (pre-cancerous skin spots that are scaly and rough) (17)
  • Eye issues such as cataracts and photokeratitis (18)
  • Wrinkling (19)
  • Premature skin aging (20)

Normally, sunburn is not long-lived and is mild, but it is very important to avoid it. The skin normally starts to peel and flake after a couple of days, and it should heal completely after 7 days, if not too severe. Even if it may not seem serious at the moment, sunburn can increase the risk of developing other serious health problems later in life.

The important thing to remember is that sunburn is not solely what you see on the outside. Even if you heal the skin on the outside, the inside can be more damaged and too much sun exposure can often lead to serious conditions, such as skin cancer.

Best Treatments for Severe Sunburn

If you or someone close to you suffer from sunburn, you should get out of the sun and move indoors or into a shady spot as quickly as possible. Mild sunburn can be easily treated by some effective home remedies, but severe sunburn should be treated by a medical professional.

If severely sunburned, there are several steps to follow immediately after noticing the damaged skin:

  • Sponge the skin with cold water, take a cold shower or bath, and apply a cold compress to the affected area.
  • Drink a lot of water or fluid to prevent dehydration.
  • Take painkillers to relieve any pain. These include ibuprofen or paracetamol. Aspirin is not recommended for children under the age of 16.
  • Apply petroleum jellies such as Vaseline or a water-based emollient. This will help to keep the skin cool and moist.
  • Avoid additional exposure to the sun, including indirect exposure through windows. Cover all affected skin areas while your skin is healing.

When it comes to severe sunburn, there are special burn dressings and creams that can be recommended or provided by your doctor or another medical professional. A medical professional may recommend that you use hydrocortisone cream to reduce skin inflammation. Hydrocortisone cream can be purchased at local drug stores and pharmacies. In some serious cases, hospital treatment may be also be recommended.


Sunburn is uncomfortable, irritating, and painful, and can cause extensive damage over time. People suffering from sunburn should take immediate measures to get sunburn relief, especially if the burning is severe. Preventing sunburn is important not only to avoid pain and discomfort but also to decrease the risk of serious damage and disease. Ultimately, it’s best to prevent sunburn altogether by staying out of the sun, covering up with protective clothing, and always using high-quality sunscreen.