Lemme guess: You laid in the backyard for a few hours sans-SPF in the hope of achieving a ~golden glow~ (YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID), but now you’re the same shade as your red bikini. Oof, I’ve been there and it totally sucks. Especially when you wake up in the middle of the night with your legs on fire only to realize that there’s no aloe vera in the house so you Google DIY sunburn remedies and end up soaking tea bags in milk and sticking them on your legs for some relief. No? Just me?
Anyway, sunburns are the worst. The best way to prevent ’em? Apply a broad spectrum sunscreen (that means it’ll protect against both types of harmful UV rays) of SPF 30 or higher 15 minutes before you go in the sun, per the American Academy of Dermatology’s guidelines. Oh, and reapply about every two hours, or after you swim or sweat.
But, given that you've come here seeking sunburn remedies, I'm gonna guess it's a lil late for that. No shame, just keep those recommendations in mind for next time.
Good news though: Although you’re stuck looking like a lobster for a few days (unforch), there are actually a ton of proven methods for making your sunburn feel better and go away faster. Like that whole milk thing I mentioned earlier? It actually isn’t the worst idea in the world—more on that later though. Here’s how to make your sunburn GO, STAT.
1. Take a cool shower.
Um, easiest remedy ever. Just hop in a cool shower (or tub) for some instant relief. The cold water will feel amaze and actually make your skin appear less red by reducing inflammation. But whatever you do, don’t rub your burn with a towel when you get out. Doing so will disrupt your skin barrier even more, which you def don’t want right now, explains dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine. Instead, use the towel to gently pat yourself dry.
2. Make a clothsicle.
You’ve probably heard of applying a cold compress to a sunburn—but this hack takes it to a whole new level. Wet a washcloth, put it in the freezer for a few hours and boom, you have what Dr. Gohara calls a clothsicle (getting this trademarked, brb). Place it over your skin to soothe any burning sensations and calm redness. If you’re dealing with a seriously uncomfy or large burn, make a few clothsicles at a time so you’ll always have one on hand, recommends Dr. Gohara.
3. Refrigerate your aloe.
Oookay, so aloe isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking sunburn remedy. But according to Dr. Gohara, it’s super popular for a reason. Aloe is anti-inflammatory, meaning it calms the skin to reduce the redness and pain you're dealing with rn. And if you put the bottle in the fridge for a bit before applying it, the already cool gel will feel even better, says Dr. Gohara.
4. Rub on some OTC hydrocortisone cream.
You know that cream your mom used to give you for bug bites that got really itchy? Yeah, that’s what this is. Just like aloe, it’s anti-inflammatory so it’ll get your skin to calm down, says Dr. Gohara. If you have an itchy sunburn, hydrocortisone cream is definitely the way to go. It has ingredients that’ll cure the itch and soothe your sunburn.
5. Invest in a healing moisturizer.
Bad news: A sunburn leaves the outer layer of your skin d-a-m-a-g-e-d. Don’t worry, once you tone down the inflammation, it’ll naturally start to regenerate itself, says Dr. Gohara. But if you want to speed up the process, she recommends slathering on a moisturizer with healing ingredients, like Avène’s Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream. It’s made with sucralfate, a special ingredient that helps your skin regenerate.
6. Pour on some milk.
Yeah, you read that right. According to Dr. Gohara, soaking a cloth in milk and putting it on your burn will feel awesome—and actually help it heal too. That’s because milk contains vitamins A and D, which help repair damaged cells, and lactic acid, a gentle exfoliator that will help the dead skin peel right off. Pro tip: Stand in the shower while you try this.
7. Two words: oatmeal bath.
Feeling lazy? I gotchu. Fill your tub with lukewarm water (anything hotter will just aggravate your sunburn) and dump in a couple cups of oats. Oats combat inflammation, so they’ll chill your skin right out. Wanna get fancy? You can add some milk to the bath too, says Dr. Gohara. That way, you’ll get the benefits from both.
8. Pop an anti-inflammatory.
As long as you do it within the first few hours of getting your sunburn, popping a couple of ibuprofens (or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug like aspirin) can actually make your sunburn go away faster. Just keep taking ’em every four to six hours until the pain subsides.
Once the redness and swelling goes down, your skin cells can repair the sunburned skin’s barrier and generate new skin, explains Shari Lipner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine, and member of the American Academy of Dermatology.
9. Drink alllll the water.
Ever notice that you feel extra thirsty when your skin’s looking crispy? According to the American Academy of Dermatology, that’s because a sunburn attracts fluid to the skin’s surface and takes it away from the rest of the body. Drinking extra water post-sunburn will make you feel better and keep you from getting dehydrated. Because sunburn + dehydration = hell.
10. Chill with the skincare.
If you’re dealing with a sunburn on your face, ditch any exfoliators, toners, face masks, acne medications, and anti-aging products till it starts to heal, please. Sun damage can make your skin extra sensitive (yes, even to products you use on the daily) so you could end up with a rash or blisters if you keep up your usual routine.
Also, steer clear of any products that contain lidocaine or benzocaine. Numbing agents might sound like a good idea, but they can actually cause sunburned skin to flare up. Yikes.
11. Same goes for makeup, avoid that ish.
Seriously, don’t. But if you’re dead set on covering up the redness, gently dust on a light powder. You don’t want to put any heavy liquid formulas on because they prevent the skin from receiving oxygen and could further irritate it. And if you can help it, don’t use makeup brushes. They’ll just irritate the skin further, Dr. Gohara says. Use a makeup sponge or your (clean) fingers instead.
12. Wear your comfiest clothes.
Tight clothing and snug straps can chafe, creating painful blisters on skin that’s already damaged. Ow. To keep from aggravating the area, wear loose clothing that doesn’t stick to the skin—yes, even if it means wearing a strapless bra to keep sunburned shoulders bare. Or, ya know, just go braless. In terms of fabric, opt for synthetic polyester and nylon blends, like those sweat-wicking tees you wear to the gym. They will keep your skin cool and won't cling.
13. Put Vaseline on your blisters.
You might think putting a bandaid over your blisters is a good idea, but just imagine what it’s gonna feel like to pull it off your sunburn later *Cringe*. Instead, cover each individual blister—not the entire burn, please—with Vaseline. It’s basically nature’s bandaid, says Dr. Gohara. “It’s a really good protective barrier so it will help the skin heal but you don’t have to have any adhesive on it,” she explains.
14. Do. Not. Pick.
I know, I know, there’s something so satisfying about picking and peeling your flaky sunburned skin. But pleeeease don’t. If you mess with it, you’re more likely to have discoloration or scarring once your skin heals.
15. Seek some shade.
Staying in the sun after your sunburn symptoms first develop can do more damage to the area or expand it, says Dr. Lipner. If you still wanna be outside, find some shade and cover the sunburned area with clothing. Any fabric you can’t see light through when you hold it up the sun should have a tight enough weave to protect you. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat is another smart move with a bonus: You’ll look ridiculously chic.
16. Don't freak.
While it’s true that areas that have gotten more sunburns are at increased risk for skin cancers, freaking out about a particularly bad burn won’t help. Just take care of your skin with the remedies above, and keep an eye out for any unusual moles or marks. “We can only do our best to protect ourselves and our skin,” Dr. Lipner says. So really, don’t beat yourself up—just be smart now that the damage is done.
17. Call your derm.
If you have a large sunburn, lots of blisters, or feel like you might have a fever, call your derm, says Dr. Gohara. And if you’re getting sunburns on the reg, definitely head in for a visit. They’ll be able to help you determine how to better care for your skin, and make sure that you’re not at risk for developing skin cancer.