The Best Way to Treat a Sunburn

First off, not to be Captain Obvious, but the best way to deal with a sunburn is to not get one! So if you haven’t read my previous column on wearing sunscreen daily, read the article for tips on sunscreens and sun protection.

Sunburn is your body’s inflammatory response to skin damage caused by too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation. High doses of UV, especially UVB, cause DNA mutations that usually lead to cellular death. The death of skin cells is why people may blister or peel after a sunburn.

However, what’s scarier is that some DNA mutations are not severe enough to cause cellular death! These mutations may become a permanent part of the skin DNA, leading to skin cancer many years down the road. As cells divide and accumulate mutations from UV exposure and other insults, they may eventually become cancerous — even 30-50 or more years after a bad sunburn!

If you do get a sunburn, there are things you can do to treat the symptoms. First and foremost, stay out of the sun to keep things from getting worse. The next step is to keep your body and your skin hydrated and treat the symptoms.

My recommendations for most sunburns include:

  1. Get out of the sun and heat.
  2. Drink plenty of water. When the skin is inflamed, you lose water through sweating and seepage, and your body will heal better when hydrated.
  3. Take a cool shower with a gentle cleanser and without scrubbing.
  4. After bathing, use fragrance-free, alcohol-free moisturizer or aloe gel.
  5. Take ibuprofen (e.g. Aleve) or acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) per directions on the bottle to relieve any discomfort. (See #1, make sure to drink plenty of water when taking these medications).
  6. For itching, over the counter hydrocortisone cream can help.
  7. Consider taking some extra Vitamin C or a multivitamin. Although a lot of the skin damage has already been done by time the sunburn is evident, this may help your skin with recovery.

For severe blistering sunburns that also cause systemic symptoms (“sun poisoning”), sometimes corticosteroid pills may be prescribed by your doctor with caution. Steroid use has risks, especially in diabetics or the elderly, so they are typically only used in extreme cases. Some medications, like Doxycycline, which is commonly used for acne, also increase your risk of sun sensitivity and burns.

Molenda, MatthewMatthew Molenda, MD, FAAD, is a ProMedica Physician specializing in dermatology and dermatologic surgery. Prior to moving back to his hometown, Toledo, he completed his dermatology residency training at The Ohio State University, and pursued a fellowship in advanced surgical training at the Cleveland Clinic Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute. He has special interests in skin cancer, skin surgery, cosmetic surgery, lasers, injectable cosmetics, sun damage, and acne management.