Dermatologists Tell Us How to Treat Any Sunburn

Shannon Farrell
how to treat sunburn

Ganovsky Vladislav / Getty

You thought you were being extra careful with the sun in these last days of summer—you reapplied SPF, you wore a hat, you even sat under the umbrella instead of frying in the sand. But alas, you missed a spot (your feet, ears, scalp…) and that dreaded sunburn was inevitable. While it’s impossible to undo sun damage, there are products and practices you can use to treat sunburn quickly and effectively. So we asked our favorite dermatologist for his tips on treating sunburn—and making sure it never happens again.

Damage level: Redness.
“I always tell my patients—pink is the new red,” says Dr. Dennis Gross, New York-based dermatologist and the owner of 900 Fifth Dermatology. At the first sign of redness, cover up or go inside. (Remember: a tan is still sun damage!) When you do experience a burn, aloe vera gel is still a go-to. “It helps vent some of the retained heat and also lessens thermal injury.” Coola Environmental Repair Plus Radical Recovery After-Sun Lotion ($32, birchbox.com) is formulated with aloe vera and moisturizing agave. To calm the skin and alleviate redness, he recommends any product with Dipotassium Glycyrrhizinate, or licorice extract. Skin Inc. Licorice Serum Relieve ($45, sephora.com) not only soothes and reduces redness, but it also protects against further UV damage with a rich blend of antioxidants.

Damage level: Peeling.
Once you’ve experienced a burn—even a mild one—the skin will peel. “The action of peeling is the body physically removing cells from the surface—this sun burn is essentially cell death,” Dr. Gross tells us. Keep the skin hydrated with a hyaluronic acid-infused moisturizer, like Dr. Dennis Gross Hydra-Pure Intense Moisture Cream ($125, sephora.com); the acid pulls water from the atmosphere to keep the skin hydrated; the more hydrated, the less likely the skin will peel. If you’re feeling any discomfort, he recommend soothing the skin with a cool washcloth soaked in cold milk. The milk proteins soothe while the lactic acid exfoliates the peeling skin, helping to heal the burn faster.

Damage level: Blisters.
First things first, treat the inflammation, says Dr. Gross, “because it can reduce some of the chemical injury that occurs.” Take a few ibuprofen and apply cold compresses to the blisters. Use water or opt for refrigerated green tea which can offer even more soothing benefits. As for the blisters, don’t pop them, although you may be tempted! “Think of blisters as nature’s Band-Aid. Let them break open themselves, and once this occurs, leave uncovered and the skin will begin to peel,” Dr. Gross tells us.

Bottom line: the best treatment is prevention. “Practicing ‘safe sun’ and wearing an SPF 365 days a year is our best defense, and I cannot emphasize it enough,” he says. “Also, sunburns can double your risk of developing melanoma.” And, after all, skin cancer is serious business. Safety first, ladies!

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