When it comes to mastering a sun-kissed complexion, my luck usually leaves me with one of two unfortunate outcomes. If I've tried to avoid harsh UV rays altogether by opting for self-tanner, I end up accidentally making myself into a streaky, orange mess. The other worst-case scenario is for me to brave the sun with little to no SPF (never the right choice!) and end up red, crispy, and aggressively Googling how to treat sunburn fast.
This summer, the sun seems to be really showing off, as it's the hottest I've ever experienced. Nevertheless, since I, too, want to show off (all my cute swimsuits), it won't stop me from hitting the beach. Rather than wait until after I'm totally fried, I've decided to reach out to some dermatologists and get the scoop on the best and most effective ways to heal a sunburn. If you can't guess their number one answer, it's this: The best way to avoid suffering from sunburn is to prevent it from happening altogether. Say it with me, everybody:
"The best treatment for sunburns is to prevent burning in the first place by using (and reapplying ) SPF, sun protective clothing, and avoiding peak mid-day sun," says Jennifer Chwalek, MD, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York, NY. "Once you have a sunburn, you've done irreparable damage to your skin and there really isn't much you can do."
If you're wearing enough sunscreen and reapplying regularly, you won't have to worry about battling the burn in the first place. My personal favorite for the face is Volition's Prismatic Luminizing Shield SPF 50 ($35, Volition Beauty), which gives you both protection and glow, and Australian Gold's Botanical SPF 30 Mineral Lotion ($5, Australian Gold) for the body.
"Sunburns cannot be cured, and their duration cannot be shortened, by drugstore products or prescriptions," admits Dr. Ted Lain, MD, a dermatologist at Sanova Dermatology in Austin, TX. "Symptomatic relief is the only treatment possible, and luckily there are some good options."
So, let's say you do accidentally skip the sunscreen and end up with a bad burn... what then? According to dermatologists, these are your best options to soothe the symptoms you're likely experiencing.
If You're Into At-Home, Natural Remedies:
Personally, I don't always love to splurge to soothe a temporary burn. As a result, I often resort to mixing up my own concoctions to calm my redness and pain. Debra Jaliman, MD, a dermatologist in New York, NY, with her own private practice, has some tips on ingredients you might already have that can help relieve your sunburn symptoms.
According to Dr. Jaliman, your pantry is likely chock-full of natural ingredients that can help with your burn. For example, oatmeal and the lactic acid found in milk, she says, is "known to reduce inflammation." She suggest making "a cold milk compress or take a milk bath and soaking in it for a while," as this will help "pull heat away from the body." Other common ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties, according to Dr. Jaliman, include witch hazel, which also helps minimize redness, and aloe vera gel, which can give you an extra feeling of relief, thanks to its cooling powers. She adds that Vitamin E can help soothe inflammation as well, and recommends applying dairy products like milk and yogurt to sunburned skin.
To DIY your own soothing paste, Dr. Jaliman says cornstarch is your best bet for fast relief. "Cornstarch is cooling and has a silky texture," she says, "so it's a good way to naturally soothe your sunburn. You can make a paste by adding water and applying it to the burn." Easy enough!
If you've already got a healthy dose of apple cider vinegar in your wellness routine, get excited, because the magic ingredient can be helpful here, too. "Apple cider vinegar is perfect for treating sunburn, because it prevents any peeling and blistering of the skin, and helps to cool the burn," Dr. Jaliman explains. Seriously, what can't this stuff do?
Dr. Jaliman's final tip is for anyone who finds sleeping on a fresh sunburn to be nearly impossible: "Sprinkling a little bit of talcum powder on your sheets could make it more comfortable to sleep if you have a sunburn," she says. "It will cause less friction when turning around, or when moving from one side to another." Consider your beauty sleep saved.
If You're More "Add to Cart" Than "Do It Yourself":
Before applying anything topical, think about what's going on underneath the sunburn, inside your body. "A sunburn is inflammation of the skin caused by UV light. It is important to treat it from the inside out, not just the outside in," advises Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital New York, NY. "First, make sure that you take an aspirin or another anti-inflammatory to calm the skin from the inside." The Bayer Safety-Coated Aspirin ($15 for 300 tablets, Amazon) should be just the ticket! However, if you prefer ibuprofen (like Advil) as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory, you're free to use that instead.
"Moisturizing is important because the skin dries out," notes Dr. Chwalek, who recommends investing in a moisturizer with the right ingredients to hydrate damaged and burned skin. "I usually recommend moisturizers that have ceramides, such as Skin Medica's TNS Ceramide Cream ($62, Amazon) and/or antioxidants like vitamin C and E — these have been shown post-laser to improve healing."
If dropping $70 on a moisturizer doesn't sound appealing (I fully understand that not everyone is a skincare hoarder like I am), Dr. Lain recommends the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Face Moisturizer ($37, Amazon) as a more affordable buy. "The Toleriane line contains thermal spring water with natural anti-inflammatory properties, along with wonderful moisturizers to protect compromised skin," says Dr. Lain. "It also restores the normal microbiome on the skin's surface, to both prevent infection and optimize recovery."
Dr. Lain recommends a bunch of other products from the Toleriane line for managing sunburn as well, including the Double Repair Face Moisturizer UV ($20, Amazon) and the Hydrating Gentle Cleanser ($15, Amazon).
According to Dr. Lain, lidocaine is a powerful ingredient that can work wonders for relieving major pain from a sunburn, and the CVS Health Burn Relief Gel with Lidocaine HCI ($5, CVS) is a great way to try it out for less than $10. "This calming gel contains aloe and lidocaine to help reduce the irritation and itching," says Dr. Lain, adding that it can numb burning for around 30 to 45 minutes. However, lidocaine isn't a great fit for everyone: "I would advise taking care to not use too much of this gel (i.e. on a large area of the body), since the absorption of lidocaine into the bloodstream could cause health issues."
If the thought of lidocaine freaks you out a bit, or you can't use it for medical reasons, fear not! Dr. Lain has patients with the same concerns and often recommends for them to pick up Dermoplast Pain Relieving Spray ($9, Amazon) as an alternative. "This has aloe, and is easy to apply quickly," says Dr. Lain. "The Dermoplast numbs with benzocaine, making it a good option for those allergic to lidocaine." Problem solved.
Now that you've got more than a dozen ways to soothe the sting, I expect only the healthiest, most protected, and well-moisturized of skin in all your forthcoming selfies. And just in case I didn't drill it into your head earlier: Don't 👏 forget 👏 to 👏 apply 👏 sunscreen 👏.