25th June, 20204 min read

Sunburn treatments: What to do and which ones give relief?

Medical reviewer:
Healthily's medical team
Healthily's medical team
Alex Bussey
Alex Bussey
Last reviewed: 26/06/2020
Medically reviewed

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The right amount of sun can be good for you, but overexposure to sunlight can cause your skin to burn.

Sunburn is an inflammatory response to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. It can make your skin feel hot, red, itchy or sore. It can also make your skin flake and peel off as your body tries to get rid of the damaged cells.

People with pale or sun-sensitive skin are more likely to get sunburn. Spending a lot of time outdoors can also increase your chances of getting sunburnt.

But it’s important to remember that anyone can get sunburnt, including people with dark skin and high levels of melanin. You can also get sunburn on cloudy or overcast days and through light or thin summer clothing.

Sunburn is normally a short-term problem, and most cases can be treated at home with the help of an effective sunburn treatment.

When to see a doctor about your sunburn

You should seek medical attention if you are feeling unwell, or you’re worried about your sunburn. You should also see a doctor if:

  • your skin is blistered or swollen
  • you have a high temperature
  • you feel hot or shivery
  • you have headaches, nausea or dizziness

Babies or children with sunburn should also be treated by a doctor.

Treating sunburn at home

The following treatments may help to relieve the symptoms of a mild sunburn.

A cool bath

Taking a cold bath may help to cool down your skin and soothe some of the inflammation caused by your sunburn.

Try to keep your baths short, and make sure that you apply a water-based moisturiser while your skin is still damp. According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, this helps to keep moisture trapped against your skin and may help to ease any dryness.

cool bath

A cold compress

You may also find that a cold compress provides some short-term relief from inflammation and pain. To make a cold compress at home, soak a clean washcloth in water, wring it out and apply it to the affected area.

You can also make a cold compress by wrapping some ice in a flannel or soft towel, but you should never put ice directly on sunburned skin.

A moisturising cream or spray

Sunburn can be treated with an aftersun cream or spray, and you may find that a soothing lotion with aloe vera or soy can help to soothe your skin.

But you should take care to avoid medicated creams that contain products like benzocaine, because they can irritate your skin or cause an allergic reaction.

If you need help picking an aftersun treatment, speak to your pharmacist. They will be able to talk you through your options to find the best option for you.

Pain medication

A doctor may advise taking painkillers such as paracetamol. Speak to your pharmacist or doctor for further guidance on whether to use these medications and how to get and use them.

Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or aspirin can also reduce some of the inflammation caused by your sunburn. But you should not give aspirin to children under the age of 16.

Drinking plenty of water

Sunburn can draw water to the surface of your skin, which may increase your risk of dehydration. If you have been burned by the sun, make sure that you drink more water than you normally would.


How can I prevent sunburn in future?

While most cases of sunburn can be treated at home, it’s important to remember that sunburn can significantly increase your risk of developing skin cancer.

Statistics released by Cancer Research UK show that getting sunburned once every 2 years can triple your risk of developing melanoma skin cancers so it is always best to prevent sunburn whenever you can.

To protect yourself, you should:

  • try to cover up with suitable clothing
  • stay in the shade between 11 am and 3pm (if you are in the UK)
  • wear plenty of sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
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