THE DREADED REAPPLICATION— there’s nothing worse than having to break from your pool swim or beach volleyball game to slather on more SPF. Well, one thing might be worse: Sunburn.
It happens all too often—one in three Americans report getting a sunburn at least once a year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Even sleeping becomes uncomfortable with sunburn. Not getting burned is the best option. But if it happens, anyway, there are five ways to get some sunburn relief, fast. Here’s what to know:
How Does Sunburn Happen?
Sunburn is caused by overexposure to ultraviolet, or UV, rays that are present in sunlight. This comes from two different kinds of UV rays—UVA and UVB. UVA is a longer wavelength of light, and penetrates deep into the skin. UVB is shorter, and burns the upper layers of the skin.
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“Light contacts your skin, and immediate tanning happens when the skin is unable to compensate for the sun’s rays, and it must release chemicals from the skin cells,” says Dawn Davis, M.D., dermatologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Extra pigment is released “to protect itself, and that gives a tan, which means that your body is reacting to damage.”
When there’s too much UVB for the skin to take, the skin burns. Excessive UVA exposure causes aging. These burns can cause pain, peeling, fine wrinkling, blistering, tissue loss, and increase your risk of skin cancer. “Repeated, unprotected sun exposure and repeated sunburns raises that risk dramatically,” says Corey L. Hartman, M.D., Men’s Health advisor and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL.
5 Ways To Get Rid of Sunburn
While there’s no scientifically proven cure for sunburn, there are several doctor-approved ways that you can minimize the pain and symptoms associated with sunburn.
Take a Salt or Oatmeal Bath
Head to the kitchen and grab some staples. It sounds counterintuitive, but adding salt to a bath can help provide some much-needed relief.
“Adding table salt to the bath alters the pH of the water. And it helps people feel more comfortable in the bath when their skin feels very raw,” says Davis.
Oatmeal baths can potentially help, too. Oatmeal packs loads of antioxidants which can help with inflammation. If you go the oatmeal route, Davis says to make sure the oatmeal is ground up so that it’s not abrasive on the skin.
Slather on Aloe Vera
It’s a crowd favorite for a reason. The gel from the aloe vera plant promotes collagen synthesis in the skin and helps with the healing process. Pick a product with as few ingredients as possible. “I would avoid topical products that have a lot of perfumes, or additives,” Davis says.
To keep your skin hydrated, try Vaseline or another form of petrolatum. It’s hypoallergenic and won’t agitate your burn any further. Moisturizing is important when you have sunburn, Davis says. Our skin loses water as is, and when it’s damaged, as with sunburn, it loses even more. But it needs that moisture to heal. Lock it in with Vaseline or a similar product.
Chill Out with a Cold Compress
“If you find yourself with a mild sunburn, you can use a cool compress to alleviate some of the swelling and bring down the heat in your skin,” says Hartman.
Take An Over-the-Counter Med
Over the counter pain relievers like Advil and Tylenol can help relieve some of the inflammation and pain that comes with a nasty sunburn, Hartman says. These medications won’t cure your sunburn, but they will help relieve the symptoms.
How Do You Prevent Sunburn?
The best way to prevent sunburn is, obviously, to stay out of the sun. Seek shade when outside, and cover up using hats and clothing.
When that’s not an option, an informed choice about sunscreen will save your skin. Make sure you select a product that is labeled “broad-spectrum,” Hartman says. This will protect from both UVA and UVB rays.
It’s important to understand what SPF actually means so you can select appropriately. SPF stands for sun protection factor, and it is a ratio of the amount of time that you can stand out in sunlight before getting skin color changes with the product on, relative to not wearing any product at all. “So, if I can stand outside without the product on and start to turn red and have signs of inflammation at 10 minutes, but I go outside with the product on and the exact same environment and it takes 300 minutes. That’s a ratio of 30 to one which means an SPF of 30,” Davis says.
As a general guide, she advises everyone to wear SPF of at least 15 everyday, and up that to SPF 30 when you know you’re going to be outside for a bit. You might need to go higher right off the bat. “Preferentially if you have fair skin, sensitive skin, a family history of skin cancer, you live in a southern climate, you have an outdoor occupation, you are at high altitudes, I recommend an SPF daily of 30 and an SPF outdoors of 50,” Davis says.
You also want to make sure you’re using enough. One of the biggest issues Davis sees with sun protection is people don’t apply enough product, leaving themselves vulnerable. A good rule of thumb, she says, is that you want to apply about a shot glass’s worth of sunscreen to your face, chin, and neck area.
When Should You See a Doctor About Your Sunburn?
Sometimes, a burn goes past the point of at-home relief. “If you have any blistering, peeling and bleeding or extreme pain, skip the at-home remedies and see a doctor,” says Hartman.
If you have symptoms similar to that of the flu, such as having a fever, chills, deep muscle aches, or a loss of appetite, that may be a sign to go get checked out. It be a sign of sun poisoning—a severe case of sunburn that acts similar to an allergic reaction.
“Another sign is if you have an area that looks like it’s infected, because when a sunburn is deep or extensive, the skin is very vulnerable to infection,” says Davis. “If there’s an infection, we’ll want to treat that with appropriate anti-microbial.”
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.
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