It's all fun in the sun—until someone gets burned. Looking and feeling like a lobster? Ouch. We've all been there: Half of American adults under 30 say they've had a sunburn at least once in the previous year, according to government data released in May. And just one blistering burn can double the risk of developing melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. "It's not worth having such a bad sunburn after day one that you have to stay inside the rest of the weekend and watch everyone else having fun through the window," says dermatologist Jessica Krant, founder of the Art of Dermatology practice in New York.
Prevention, of course, is easier than treatment. The smartest advice: Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the hottest hours of the day. Wear thin clothing that covers your skin, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses. "Don't underestimate how quickly you can get burned," Krant says. Slather sunscreen on 15 to 30 minutes before heading into the sun, and make sure it's at least SPF 30 and marked with the phrase "broad spectrum," which indicates that it protects against the two types of ultraviolet rays capable of causing sunburn: UVA and UVB.
If it's too late, and that burn has already made its mark, aloe vera isn't your only option. "There's no 'cure' for a sunburn—it simply has to run its course," says Cynthia Bailey, a dermatologist practicing in Sebastopol, Calif. "But you can sooth inflammation to make your skin more comfortable." Try these at-home treatments:
Common kitchen ingredients. Yogurt and cooled-down oatmeal contain helpful anti-inflammatory agents. Turns out veggies aren't just good for your nutrition, either. Boil lettuce in water, then strain it and refrigerate it for a few hours before pressing it against your skin. "Anything cold and wet will help," Krant says.
Tea. Soak two bags in cool water, and then apply them to sore spots. Tea contains tannic acid, which helps ease pain. (Research also suggests that drinking two cups a day can provide sun protection, so drink some preemptively, as well.)
Honey. Research suggests it helps heal wounds, and applying some to your sunburn encourages the growth of new skin cells. It has lots of antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Milk. But it's got to be cow's milk. "It has anti-inflammatory properties that help soothe a sunburn," Krant says. Pour it into a bowl and add several ice cubes; soak a washcloth in the mixture to create a compress. When it beings to feel warm against your skin, dip it back in the bowl so it cools down, then reapply.
Strawberries. They're plump, tasty, and like tea, they contain lots of tannic acid, which helps take the sting out of a sunburn. Mash up a few ripe ones and smear the pulp over your sunburn. Rinse off after a few minutes.
Ice packs. Head to the freezer and grab an ice pack. Wrap a damp cloth around it and hold it over your sunburn. (Or cover a bag of frozen corn or peas with a towel and press it against the burned area.) "It's very helpful to gently cool inflamed skin," Bailey says. That's because cooling causes your skin's capillaries—tiny blood vessels—to constrict. "When your skin is red, the capillaries are wide open and flowing with blood circulation, which brings in the building blocks of inflammation," Bailey says. "When they're constricted, inflammation lessens."
Shaving cream. It's packed with menthol and other chemicals that double as natural cooling agents. It evaporates quickly and will remove some of the heat that radiates from sunburn, so slather it on your red spots.
Moisturizer. Apply soothing lotions and topical steroids, such as 1 percent hydrocortisone cream, to scorched areas. They'll help soothe pain and swelling. Even better: Keep a bottle of moisturizer in the refrigerator during the summer months, and rub the cooled lotion on your burn as often as necessary. An added benefit, Krant says, is that "moisturizing a lot after a burn will keep skin looking better while it peels."
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Equally important is to not exacerbate the problem. "Sunburned skin is fragile and needs to be babied," Bailey says. Otherwise, it will become redder and more inflamed. Avoid highly fragrant bubble baths, soaps, colognes, and perfumes—they could dry and further irritate your skin. Stick with mild soaps, and don't scrub too hard. Keep an eye on shower temperature, too. Hot water increases blood flow, inviting additional inflammation. Don't rub or peel sunburned skin, or expose it to harsh products, like glycolic acid, Retin A, or Renova. And stay out of the sun until your burn is fully healed, Bailey says. Sunburned skin is particularly susceptible to harmful UV rays.
Though sunburns are uncomfortable, they typically don't require medical attention. But seek treatment if you experience chills, nausea, fever, faintness, or fatigue. Same goes if you notice purple blotches or discoloration, excessive blistering, or intense itching. These could indicate that you have a second-degree burn, which penetrates beyond the upper layer of skin and causes more extensive damage. Skin cancer aside, the worst burns could cause future complications like liver spots.