Home Remedies for Sunburn Relief and How to Prevent Sunburn

Medically Reviewed By Clare Wightman MS, PAC
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Sunburn is a radiation burn following exposure to UV rays from the sun. Your skin can become red or otherwise discolored, swollen, painful, and warm to the touch. Sunburn can be mild, or it can be incredibly painful and blistering. It can start to peel as your body tries to get rid of damaged cells.

Read on to learn more about what causes sunburn and how to treat it. This guide also includes information about how to prevent sunburn and when to seek medical help.

What are the home remedies for treating sunburn?

Three women are sitting on a blanket at the beach.
Ivan Gener/Stocksy United

There are some steps that you can take to reduce the symptoms of sunburn. Home remedies that can help with sunburn include:

  • bathing in cool colloidal oatmeal baths to help soothe the skin
  • drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration
  • staying out of the sun to prevent further skin damage
  • applying cool, wet cloths to soothe warm skin
  • lightly bandaging any blistering with gauze to prevent infection

It is also important to avoid interfering with any blisters. Popping, bursting, or breaking open sunburn blisters increases your risk of infection.

Are there any medical treatments for sunburn?

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications and ointments can assist with the treatment of sunburn. These options can include:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce pain and inflammation
  • aspirin to reduce inflammation in the skin
  • topical creams such as aloe vera or hydrocortisone
  • topical steroids to decrease inflammation

If you experience severe sunburn that causes large areas of blistering and a loss of fluids, you may require hospitalization.

Your doctor will be able to monitor your fluid intake while you rehydrate. Depending on the severity of the burns, you may also need to spend time in a burn unit where you can receive specialist care.

How do I prevent getting sunburned?

You can prevent sunburn by applying sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 around 30 minutes before you spend time in the sun. Reapplying sunscreen every 90 minutes can further help prevent sunburn.

It is also important to reapply sunscreen after swimming and after any activities that cause sweating. Water-resistant sunscreen can help prevent sunburn if you are spending time outdoors or in water.

Avoiding spending time in the sun when the rays are strongest can also help prevent sunburn. The sun’s rays are typically strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Discover more ways to protect your skin from the sun.

What are the symptoms of sunburn?

Symptoms of sunburn typically begin around 4 hours after exposure to the sun. They can worsen over the course of around 24–36 hours.

Sunburn can cause the skin to become:

  • red or otherwise discolored
  • warm
  • tender
  • swollen
  • blistering

Other symptoms of sunburn include:

Symptoms of sunburn typically improve within around 3–5 days. Contact your doctor if symptoms do not improve after this time or if sunburn is causing you severe pain.

What does sunburn peeling mean?

If you experience sunburn, your skin can begin to peel around 3–8 days following sun exposure. This happens as your body tries to rid itself of the damaged cells.

Peeling skin will come away naturally. It is important to avoid trying to peel it off yourself.

Learn more about peeling skin.

How long does sunburn last?

Symptoms of sunburn typically last around 3–5 days. They can worsen within the first 24–36 hours. Sunburn pain may increase over the first 48 hours following exposure to the sun.

It can take anywhere from 3–8 days for your skin to shed damaged cells. This is when your skin looks like it is peeling off.

Contact your doctor if symptoms of sunburn persist or do not respond to treatment.

What causes sunburn?

You can experience sunburn as a result of exposure to UV radiation. If you spend a prolonged period of time in the sun without wearing the right sun protection, your skin can become burned.

Melanin, which provides pigmentation for your skin, darkens the areas of your skin that are unprotected and exposed to the sun. People with less melanin are more likely to have symptoms of sunburn, including red or otherwise discolored skin, swelling, and pain.

People with dark skin can also get sunburn. It is not always visible to other people, but their skin can feel hot, swollen, and tender. It can sometimes appear as a violet reddish or purple color.

Learn more about the role of melanin.

Second-degree sunburn

Second-degree sunburn occurs when sunlight damages the epidermis, which is the outer layer of the skin, and part of the dermis layer beneath it. This is also called a partial thickness burn.

Having second-degree sunburn can cause your skin to blister. Blisters help your skin heal, so it is important to not pop them, as this can delay healing and result in infection.

Learn more about the different degrees of burns.

When should I contact a doctor?

Contact a doctor if symptoms of sunburn persist for more than 5 days or do not respond to home remedies or OTC treatments.

You should also seek medical advice if any of the following apply:

  • Severe burns affect more than 15% of your body.
  • You experience dehydration.
  • You have a high fever of 101ºF (38ºC) or over.
  • You experience extreme pain that lasts for more than 48 hours.

How do doctors diagnose sunburn?

To diagnose sunburn, your doctor will evaluate your medical history and ask you questions about how much time you have spent in the sun and whether or not you wore sunscreen.

If you wore sunscreen but have symptoms of sunburn, you may wish to take the sunscreen product with you to your appointment.

As well as carrying out a physical examination to look for symptoms of sunburn, such as skin damage and blisters, your doctor may also carry out various tests. These can include skin biopsy and phototesting.

During a skin biopsy, your doctor will remove a small sample of the affected skin to send for laboratory testing.

Phototesting helps see how sensitive your skin is to light. During the test, your doctor will shine small spots of light onto your skin for varying lengths of time, ranging from around 3 seconds to 15 minutes.

What are the risk factors for sunburn?

The greatest risk factor for sunburn is spending extended periods of time in the sun, particularly if UV rays are intense.

Some people are more likely to experience sunburn than others, and some people may be at higher risk of experiencing more severe sunburn. Risk factors include:

  • taking certain medications, such as:
    • tetracycline antibiotics, particularly doxycycline
    • sulfonamides
    • thiazide diuretics
    • NSAIDs
    • retinoids
    • St. John’s wort
    • fluoroquinolones
    • other photosensitizing medications
  • spending time in the sun when the rays are the strongest
  • having Fitzpatrick skin type 1, 2, or 3, or pale, white skin
  • being outside at higher altitudes or closer to the equator
  • being outside in areas with decreased cloud coverage
  • being in areas of the world with holes in the ozone layer or decreased ozone

What are the complications of sunburn?

If you frequently experience sunburn or exposure to UV rays, it can lead to long-term health risks or complications. In some cases, complications can develop over decades.

Possible complications of sunburn and exposure to UV rays include:

  • premature aging and wrinkles
  • problems affecting the eyes, such as cataracts or photokeratitis
  • actinic keratoses, which are precancerous spots on the skin
  • melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about complications of sunburn. Taking steps to prevent sunburn, such as wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher when outdoors, can help reduce the risk of complications.

Summary

Sunburn occurs when the sun’s UV rays cause damage to your skin. This can result in red or otherwise discolored skin, swelling, and blistering.

You can treat sunburn by applying soothing ointments, taking cool baths, and using medications to reduce pain and inflammation. In more severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary to help with rehydration and the treatment of second-degree burns.

Contact your doctor if you experience severe sunburn or if symptoms do not go away within 5 days.

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Medical Reviewer: Clare Wightman MS, PAC
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 15
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.