How to Prevent Sunburn

Sunburn is a painful and potentially dangerous condition that can lead to skin cancer. Even if you have dark skin, it’s possible to burn from too much exposure.

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Rinse sunburned skin with a cool bath (sans bubbles). It helps soothe the skin and reduce pain, itching and swelling. Apply a moisturizer to keep the skin moist and help prevent dryness.

Avoiding Sunburn

Sunburn is a result of too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or from tanning beds. Over time, multiple sunburns can lead to premature aging of the skin and can increase the risk of developing skin cancer. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent sunburn.

Always use a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and be sure to reapply frequently, especially after swimming or sweating. Wearing a hat and sunglasses can also help prevent sunburn. It is best to avoid the sun during peak UV hours, which are typically between 10 AM and 4 PM.

If you get sunburned, avoid further exposure to sunlight until the burn heals. You can use a moisturizer that contains aloe vera or another soothing ingredient to soothe the skin. Cooling the skin by taking a cold shower, bath or using cool washcloths can also help. You should drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about sunburn. Your healthcare provider will ask you about your past sun exposure, your family’s history of skin cancer and any medications you might be taking or have taken in the past. He or she will also examine your skin and look for signs of sunburn.

Cooling the Burn

If you get a sunburn, try to cool the skin as quickly as possible to help prevent inflammation. This can be done in a few different ways. First, take a shower or bath with cool water, but don’t rub your burn; that can disrupt the skin barrier. Soaking the burn in milk may also help, as it contains lactic acid, which is a gentle exfoliant that can peel away dead skin cells.

Another option is to soak a washcloth in cool milk and place it on the sunburned area several times a day. Another cool treatment is a soothing aloe vera ointment, which has chemicals that can relieve itching and pain. Just make sure the ointment is free of products that end in “-caine,” such as benzocaine and lidocaine, as they can irritate sensitive skin.

If your burn is particularly painful, you can use a hydrocortisone cream that is available over the counter. Just be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to apply it and avoid rubbing the ointment on broken blisters, as that can irritate the skin even more. If you don’t have a hydrocortisone cream, acetaminophen and ibuprofen are good over-the-counter options for easing pain and swelling. You can also take a chamomile tea bath or apply a cool chamomile tea bag directly to the sunburned area, which has anti-inflammatory properties.

Soothing the Burn

A sunburn strips away the outer layer of skin and makes you vulnerable to infection. That’s why it’s so important to use a gentle moisturizer. “You want a cream that can help the skin regenerate itself,” says dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D. She recommends a soothing cream containing sucralfate, like Avene’s Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream. But avoid thicker lotions that can trap in heat and make the burn worse, she adds. Also skip numbing agents like lidocaine and benzocaine, which can actually cause the skin to react to the sun damage.

The first step is to take a cool bath or shower, but be careful not to scrub the affected area with soap, because that will disrupt the skin barrier and make it feel extra dry. When you get out of the tub or shower, pat yourself dry and leave a little water on your skin, which can create a physical barrier to help preserve moisture.

Other ways to soothe your burns include applying a cool compress (wrap an ice cube in a cloth and press it against the burned areas) or soaking a towel in milk (it contains vitamin A, which may help heal the skin). Take over-the-counter pain relievers if needed (like ibuprofen and acetaminophen), but don’t pop any blisters, which can lead to infection.

Relieving Pain

A sunburn inflames the skin and causes pain. It can be worse if the burn covers a large area, or if it blisters. If the skin is extremely red and swollen, or if you have chills, fever, nausea or feel loopy, you should seek medical help immediately.

Cooling the burned skin helps reduce pain and itching. You can use clean, wet washcloths or a cool shower or bath. But don’t use ice, which can further injure the skin. Applying a moisturizer often also can help. Avoid lotions that contain benzocaine or similar ingredients, which can irritate the skin and cause allergic reactions.

Aloe vera gel is a natural way to soothe sunburn. Many tropical cultures use it in traditional medicine for its healing properties. It can be found in most health food stores. You can also take an over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone cream, which can help relieve itching and pain.

A nonprescription pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, taken as soon as possible after getting a sunburn can ease discomfort and swelling. You should also drink plenty of fluids, such as water and fruit juice, to keep your body from becoming dehydrated. Blistering is normal, but you should leave the blisters alone until they heal and avoid picking at or peeling the skin. This can lead to infection.