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Dermatologist Tips for Preventing and Treating Sunburns

By: Dan Ketchum , Reviewed By: Emmy Graber

Woman treating sunburn with a cold towel

Prevention is not only the best medicine for sunburn, it's absolutely necessary for healthy skin — regular use of sunscreen SPF 30 and above helps protect against skin cancer and slow down premature aging caused by photo damage. But life happens, and it can happen unpredictably; if you see your skin start to redden, get indoors or into the shade as quickly as possible and start a comprehensive sunburn care routine sooner rather than later.

Cool Off


The cold, damp towel your mom used to give you after a sunny day at the beach still works today — this simple trick cools down the skin, providing some much-needed relief in 10- or 15-minute bursts. Similarly, a soothing, cool shower or bath does the trick too. Once out of the tub, pat yourself dry and leave your skin just a little moist before applying your moisturizer.

Hydrate Your Skin — and Yourself


When you reach for that post-shower moisturizer — a key to helping your body heal and easing dry skin — pick a water-based emollient that contains skin-soothing aloe vera or soy, as well as skin-strengthening vitamins C or E. Steer clear of potential irritants such as lidocaine or benzocaine, and avoid petroleum, which smothers skin and traps in heat. Throughout the day, increase your water intake to keep your body hydrated inside and out — feel free to spice up your hydration with juice and sports drinks too. For particularly painful spots, a bit of nonprescription hydrocortisone cream can be a big help, while anti-inflammatory ibuprofen cuts back on discomfort, redness and swelling.

What Not to Do


Never pick or pop blisters that occur as a result of sunburn. As unsightly as they are, blisters actually help along the healing process and shield your skin from infection. Likewise, don't scrub your skin roughly or peel away dry patches, both of which are bad habits that prolong the healing process. Avoid further sun exposure as your skin recuperates. If you do step outside, cover up with long, tightly knit clothes and a wide-brimmed hat, and apply a moisturizing sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher.

Read the Signs


A bad sunburn may be a sign that your UV-protection routine isn't up to par. In the future, protect your skin with sun-shielding clothing and daily application of SPF 30 sunscreen, reapplied at least every two hours. Use about an ounce of sunscreen for your entire body. If your sunburn makes you feel queasy, imbalanced or weak, visit your dermatologist as soon as possible. Blistering from your burn on more than 20 percent of the body, dry mouth, increased thirstiness, headaches, reduced urination and drowsiness are also signs of trouble — leave the treatment of serious sunburns to the professionals.

This article has been reviewed by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Emmy Graber.

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