How to Treat a Sunburn

The sun, tanning lights, or any other source of ultraviolet light can cause a sunburn or reddened, tender skin. Prevention is better than the cure, especially as the accompanying skin damage is permanent, but there are treatments available to encourage healing, prevent infection, and reduce pain

Have a cool bath or gentle shower. Keep the water just below lukewarm (cool, but not tooth-chattering cold) and relax for 10 to 20 minutes. If showering, use a gentle stream of water, not a full blast, to avoid irritating your skin. Air dry or pat gently with a towel to avoid abrading the skin.

  • Avoid using soap, bath oils, or other detergents as you bathe or shower. Any such products can irritate your skin and possibly make the effects of the sunburn feel even worse.
  • If you have blisters forming on your skin, take a bath instead of showering. The pressure from the shower might pop your blisters.
  • Apply a cold, wet compress. Dampen a washcloth or other piece of fabric with cold water, and lay it over the affected area for 20 to 30 minutes. Re-wet it as often as you need to.

Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Over-the-counter drugs such as Ibuprofen or aspirin can lessen the pain, and may or may not reduce inflammation.

  • Do not give aspirin to children. Instead, opt for something that is specifically marketed as a child’s dose of acetaminophen. Child’s Motrin (Ibuprofen) is a good option due to the possible anti-inflammatory effect.

Try a topical pain reliever. Drugstores also sell sprays meant to relieve red and itchy skin. Sprays that contain benzocaine, lidocaine or pramoxine have a numbing effect that may help with the pain. However, as these are potential allergens, it may be best to test the medication on an unaffected patch of skin first and wait a day to see if it causes itchiness or redness.

  • These sprays should not be used on children 2 years of age or younger without a doctor’s advice. Sprays containing methyl salicylate or trolamine salicylate may endanger children 12 and under, and capsaicin can be dangerous for people 18 and under, or for anyone with a chili allergy.

Wear loose cotton clothing over sunburned areas. Baggy t-shirts and loose cotton pajama pants are ideal clothing items to wear while you’re recovering from a sunburn. If you can’t wear loose clothing, at least make sure your garments are cotton (this fabric allows your skin to “breathe”) and fit as loosely as possible.

  • Wool and some synthetic fabrics are especially irritating, due to scratchy fibers or trapped heat.

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