Sunburn treatment: What works?

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Sunburn treatment: What works?

Question

What's the most effective sunburn treatment? When does sunburn require medical attention?

Dana
Illinois

Answer

Unfortunately, there's no fast-fix sunburn treatment. Once you have sunburn, the damage is done — although it may take 12 to 24 hours after sun exposure to know the full extent and severity of sunburn, and several days or more for your skin to begin to heal.

In the meantime, the most effective sunburn treatment simply helps ease your discomfort:

  • Keep it cool. Apply cold compresses — such as a towel dampened with cool water — to the affected skin. Or take a cool bath.
  • Keep it moist. Apply aloe or moisturizing cream to the affected skin. Avoid products containing alcohol, which can further dry out skin. Beware of sunburn treatment products containing anesthetics, such as benzocaine. There's little evidence that these products are effective. In some cases, they may even irritate the skin. Benzocaine has been linked to a rare but serious, sometimes deadly, condition that decreases the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry. Don't use benzocaine in children younger than age 2 without supervision from a health care professional, as this age group has been the most affected. If you're an adult, never use more than the recommended dose of benzocaine and consider talking with your doctor.
  • Leave blisters intact. If blisters form, don't break them. You'll only slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection. If needed, lightly cover blisters with gauze.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. If needed, take anti-inflammatory medication — such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) — according to the label instructions until redness and soreness subside. Don't give children or teenagers aspirin. It may cause Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease.
  • Treat peeling skin gently. Within a few days, the affected area may begin to peel. This is simply your body's way of getting rid of the top layer of damaged skin. While your skin is peeling, continue to use moisturizing cream.

Consult a doctor for sunburn treatment if:

  • Severe sunburn covers a large portion of your body with blisters
  • Sunburn is accompanied by a high fever or severe pain
  • Severe sunburn doesn't begin to improve within a few days

To prevent future episodes of sunburn, use sunscreen frequently and liberally. Select a broad-spectrum product — one that provides protection against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation — with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. If you take medications that make sunburn more likely, be especially careful. A common example is tetracycline taken orally for acne. Common sense counts, too. Cover up while you're outdoors, and stay in the shade as much as possible.

Last Updated: 2011-04-14
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