Medically Approved

The best way to treat a sunburn

5 minute read
Person applying sunscreen lotion at the beach

Did you spend too much time in the sun? Follow our doctor-approved steps for dealing with a painful sunburn.

Jennifer Howze

By Jennifer Howze

Sunscreen mistakes are easy to make. Sometimes you get caught off guard at a barbecue or ballgame. Maybe you space out at the beach and forget to reapply. Or you simply miss a spot or an area when you first slathered it on. Now your shoulders (or chest, or back) are red, hot and painful.

Sunburn is no fun. And it can happen even when you think you’ve been careful with sunscreen. Find out how to soothe a painful burn at home and when you may need to call a doctor.

What is sunburn?

A sunburn is your skin’s reaction to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds. Sunlight contains 2 types of UV rays that can harm your skin: UVA and UVB.

UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and are primarily associated with wrinkles. UVB rays cause sunburn and play the biggest role in skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. An easy way to remember the difference? “A” is for aging, and “B” is for burning.

When you don’t wear sunscreen or sun-blocking clothing, your unprotected skin can get burned. The UV rays damage the top layers of your skin. This causes your skin to turn red, hot, swollen and painful. Sunburns can range from mild to blistering, says the Skin Cancer Foundation.

The Optum Store carries a variety of broad-spectrum sunscreens to fit your needs.

How to prevent sunburn

“The best way to treat sunburn is to prevent it in the first place,” says Stephanie Cotell, MD. She’s a board-certified dermatologist at Northeast Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery Center in Gahanna, Ohio. That means using an SPF 30 sunscreen on any exposed part of your body. You should reapply it every few hours and after you swim, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

Quality sunscreen can protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Look on the front of the label for the term “broad spectrum,” says Rajani Katta, MD. She’s a board-certified dermatologist in private practice in Houston. (FYI: Read our guide on choosing the right sunscreen.)

People with any skin tone can get burned, but you’re more prone to sunburn if you have fair skin. Being on certain medications — such as antibiotics and blood pressure medications — can also put you at higher risk for a sunburn, says Dr. Cotell.

Also, keep in mind that sunburns don’t just happen on sunny days. As much as 80% of UV rays still penetrate clouds. So slather on the sunscreen no matter the weather.

Signals of a sunburn

You might not feel yourself getting a sunburn. Symptoms usually start within 4 hours after sun exposure, according to the Mayo Clinic. In fact, it can even take up to 2 or 3 days for a sunburn to fully develop.

Symptoms of a sunburn include:

  • Red or pink skin that’s warm to the touch
  • Swollen skin
  • Fatigue
  • Small blisters
  • Nausea, fever (if the sunburn is severe)

What’s the best way to treat my sunburn?

The goal is to make yourself more comfortable. The good news is that treatment is straightforward, says Dr. Cotell. Most sunburns resolve in 3 to 5 days. Follow these dermatologist-approved tips.

Immediately get out of the sun. Head indoors as soon as you realize you’re burning, says Allison Leer, MD. She’s a dermatologist and co-founder of Unity Skincare, based in Dallas. This minimizes damage to your skin. It also allows you to start treating the burn as soon as possible.

Be gentle on your skin. “Sunburned skin is damaged skin,” says Dr. Leer. “You want to be extra careful with it.” Whether you’re applying a cream or drying off, be sure to pat your skin, rather than rub it.

Take out the heat. Appy cool, damp cloths to the sunburned area. This will help cool the skin. Or take a cool bath with a quarter-cup of baking soda added. You can also make cold compresses by wrapping ice in a towel. (Never apply ice directly to sunburned skin.)

Use a pain reliever. Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil®) or naproxen (Aleve®). Both are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These medications can relieve pain, swelling and inflammation.

Keep skin moisturized. Apply moisturizer after you bathe or shower. The AAD recommends choosing a product with aloe or soy. They both help soothe sunburned skin.

You can also try an OTC cortisone cream. “This helps with redness and inflammation,” says Dr. Cotell. “Follow the instructions on the package — you usually apply it twice a day.” If you have a very severe sunburn, especially over a large area, your doctor might prescribe prednisone.

Stay hydrated. When you get a sunburn, fluid is drawn to your skin and away from other parts of the body. That can leave you dehydrated. Drink lots of water.

Don’t pop blisters. If you get blisters, leave them alone. It might be tempting to pop them, but it’s best to let them heal on their own. You can protect large ones with a light bandage or gauze./p>

If the blisters pop anyway, you may need to see a doctor to have the wounds cleaned and properly bandaged. You may also need to take prescription antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection, says Dr. Cotell.

When should I see a doctor for sunburn?

Call your doctor or go to urgent care if you:

  • Feel woozy or confused
  • Have headaches
  • Have severe blistering that covers more than 15% of your body
  • Are dehydrated
  • Have a fever over 101 degrees or chills
  • Feel extreme pain that doesn’t improve after 2 days

Don’t delay if you develop any of these symptoms, no matter when they occur. “If you have a very severe sunburn, you need to visit the emergency room,” says Dr. Leer.

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Additional sources
Degrees of sunburn: Skin Cancer Foundation (2021). “Sunburn and Your Skin”
Treating sunburn: American Academy of Dermatology (n.d.). “How to Treat Sunburn”
Symptoms: Mayo Clinic (2020) “Sunburn.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). “Sun Exposure — Sunburn”