Natural sunburn remedies

Does an afternoon lazing in the sun mean you’ve spent an evening typing ‘best treatment for sunburn’ anxiously into Google? Unfortunately, even the most loyal SPF users aren’t totally immune to the sun’s harmful rays.

What happens to your skin in the sun?

You already know that too much exposure to the sun is harmful and can cause damage to your skin. But what actually happens to your skin when exposed to the sun?

Well, it's not the sun's heat that causes sunburn; the damage is caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The UV rays from sunlight come in two types: UVA and UVB, and it is UVB rays that cause sunburn.2

Your skin produces a coloured pigment called melanin to protect you from these rays. When exposed to sunlight, your skin produces more melanin, which causes your skin to darken (what we call a tan). But melanin can’t wholly defend your skin from UVB rays, so if your skin is exposed to more sun than it can manage, you can end up with a sunburn.2

There is also no safe or healthy of getting a tan, and when you have one, you still need to make sure you’re wearing SPF as it doesn’t protect you from the harmful effects of the sun.3

The first sign of sunburn is usually your skin changing colour – anything from slightly pink to raging red and your skin can also feel warm to the touch and sore. Over subsequent days, the pain and redness may reduce but can be replaced by itching, dryness, and peeling skin.4

What to do if you get sunburnt

Preventing a sunburn by making sure you’re using a good SPF30 with at least a 4-star UVA rating, staying hydrated and staying in the shade as much as possible is so important.3 But, if you have found yourself a bit pink after a day in the sun, it’s also important to know what to do and how to stop it from worsening.

Here are four things to do if you experience sunburn:4,5

1. Find some shade

As soon as you realise you’re getting sunburnt, you should get out of the sun. Go inside, find shade, and drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.3

2. Cool and calm the skin

To soothe the burning sensation, take a cool shower or bath to calm your skin. Then, over the next few hours, continue this cooling process using a damp towel as a compress or a bag of ice wrapped in a towel - this helps to drain the heat from the skin. As well as soothing the sunburn, this can help reduce further redness.

3. Hydrate

To support the repair of the skin barrier as quickly as possible, you need to stay hydrated, by drinking plenty of water and using hydrating moisturisers. Aloe vera is often recommended as a hydrating gel to help soothe affected skin.6

In fact, you’ll probably find many after-sun products containing aloe vera as a key ingredient. You should continue to use a cooling gel or cream for a few days to keep burnt areas moist and hydrated. ( consult doctor before using any product on burned skin).

4. Prevent further sun damage

Cover your sunburn from direct sunlight and avoid exposure to the sun until the skin is healed, and wear a high-factor SPF of at least factor 30 and with a UVA rating of at least 4-stars, to help limit further damage to the skin.3

6 remedies that can help sunburn

If your sunburn is severe, you should always seek advice from a doctor. But if you’re looking for something to take the edge off a minor sunburn, here are six natural remedies you could try.

1. Aloe vera

Before instinctively reaching for a bottle of after sun, you might want to try a natural remedy such as aloe vera, which can be great at soothing your skin.7 However, you must see a doctor immediately if you have severe sunburn.

Aloe vera is a tropical “wonder plant”, and its leaves contain a gel which has been used since Egyptian times. It’s cleansing, soothing and helps hydrate skin as it has a high-water content.8

If you have an aloe vera plant, you might want to use the gel directly from your plant’s leaves, but make sure you cool it in your fridge first. Before you apply it to your sunburn, you’ll need to test a small part of your skin to check that it doesn’t cause any irritation. If your skin doesn’t react, you should be able to use it on your sunburn - but make sure you add a layer of alcohol-free moisturiser on top, too.9

Alternatively, to save time and hassle, you could buy a tube of aloe vera gel and apply it to your sunburn every few hours. It should start soothing your skin immediately and help prevent it from peeling.9

2. Frozen peas

Head to your freezer, find a bag of frozen peas (or any other frozen vegetable) and apply it to your sunburn. Make sure you’ve wrapped the bag in a tea towel first, as you don’t want to give yourself frostbite.

3. A cool shower

A cool shower is one of the quickest ways of providing instant relief to your skin. You’ll also gently wash off any salt or chlorine if you’ve been swimming.10

4. Black tea

Make some black tea (using three or four tea bags), let it cool, then dab on your sunburn using a flannel or cloth.11

5. Porridge oats

Run yourself a cool bath and add some porridge oats. It sounds strange, but the oats will react with the water and help soothe the skin. If you don’t have any oats in your cupboard, you can use corn starch or baking soda instead.12

6. Raw honey

Another way to help soothe your skin is to dab on some raw honey or spread it on a bandage and wrap it around the affected area. Honey is a cleansing ingredient that will help keep the area of your skin clean and fresh.13 

Things to avoid when looking for sunburn remedies:

How to treat sunburn is not only about what you should do but also about what not to do.

Although cooling the skin is essential, resist the temptation to apply ice directly to the skin, as this can damage the blood vessels in the area.4,14 Instead, you should opt for a gentle moisturiser. Choose one with no fragrance and is water-based, like aloe vera gel. Perfumes and heavy creams can make your sunburn worse by causing irritation.14

In addition, avoid products containing petroleum, and oil-based balms, as they could trap heat in the skin, potentially making your sunburn even worse.15,16

Soothing sunburn on your face:

The same advice applies to your face as to any other areas of sunburnt skin, but you may want to think about simplifying your skincare regime while your skin is recovering.

Bland is better when it comes to helping soothe sunburn on your face. Sunburnt skin is highly sensitive and more susceptible to irritation, so avoiding exfoliants and fragranced skincare is advised. Substitute products such as retinol and alpha hydroxy acids with gentle moisturisers until your skin heals.17

You might also want to avoid wearing makeup whilst your sunburn heals, as this can delay the healing process of your burn. Instead, try to let your skin breathe and heal.18,19

Most importantly, keep your sunburnt face out of the sun. As one of the most exposed parts of your body, this can feel like a challenge. Applying high-factor SPF and wearing a hat outdoors is essential for face sunburn treatment.10

What happens if your sunburn is severe?

These home sunburn remedies can be effective when managing mild and moderate cases, but you should be alert to signs that your sunburn could be more severe. Blisters, swelling, a high temperature, nausea, dizziness or tiredness, headaches and muscle cramps can all signal that sunburn may be more serious.4,10,14

In these cases, seek advice from your doctor or pharmacist on the best sunburn treatment.

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