How to Treat Sunburn According to a Doctor And Dermatologist

Soothe that skin ASAP

Finally, what we've all been waiting for. The sun has reared its head, and for once, it looks like it might be here to stay (woo). With the soaring temperature, comes many of our favourite things: cocktails, BBQs, summer dresses - but wait, what's that painful red patch on our shoulders? Oh yeah, just that thing we all seem to forget about until it's too late. Sunburn might just seem inconvenient (no one wants to look like a tomato), but it's also quite dangerous. Sun damage is the number one cause of skin ageing, and if you're burning your skin - surprise, you're damaging it. Worse still, one bout of sunburn can double your chances of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. Crikey.

The most obvious way to avoid the dreaded burn is to be suncream savvy at ALL times. That means choosing the right formula, reapplying frequently and still keeping out of the sun as often as possible. Read our other tips on tanning safely, then, hopefully you won't have to scroll down...

If you've made it this far, we're assuming the deed has been done. You're burnt like pigs in blankets at Christmas dinner (the most delicious kind), so what's the next step? We spoke to Dr Anita Sturnham, a skin expert who has worked in a private mole clinic for over 7 years, as well as the NHS Melanoma screening centres and dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto. Here is your sunburn SOS handbook...

How do I know if I am sunburnt, what does it do to the skin?

"Sunburn causes direct damage to DNA, resulting in inflammation and death of skin's cells," explains Dr Mahato. "The skin can become hot, red, tender, swollen and blistered. This normally develops two or six hours after sun exposure and peaks at twelve to twenty-four hours. Clearly, this is not an ideal situation, but should it occur, it is imoprant to know how to manage it. There are many other signs to your skin being overexposed to the sun, including pain or tenderness, severe pinkness or redness on the skin, swelling and if more serious, fatigue and headaches."

What is the first thing you should do if you are sunburnt?

"Sunburn can develop over a number of hours, so it's important to act quickly at the first signs of redness," explains Dr Anita. To remove the heat coming from the burn, you need to cool your skin immediately. Dr Anita suggests wrapping ice in a flannel and applying this to affected areas to subside the burning feeling. Follow with a cool shower or bath – stay far away from hot or even warm water.

What ingredients help treat a sunburn?

Look for ones with a high water content, and also those that have soothing and calming properties. "My go-to ingredients for treating sunburn are aloe vera and cucumber, shea butter, rose water, calamine and lanolin balm," explains Dr Mahto. "All of these ingredients contain excellent skin-calming properties which help to treat sunburn." Dr Anita agrees, "try fresh mint and cucumber, packed with antioxidants. Dr Anita says "with a 95% water content cucumber is very hydrating and it has natural cooling properties to take the sting out of a burn" – particularly good for the face that you can't 'bathe'. Either apply slices of refrigerated cucumber to your face and closed eyes for 15-20 minutes, or fill a jug of ice cold water with slices of cucumber or mint leaves infused for 20 minutes and then soak a wash cloth in the liquid and dab it on sun burnt areas."

What should you avoid?

Goes without saying, if your skin is badly burnt you need to be extra careful about what you're using on it. "Rreassess what you’re using on your skin day to day and prior to sun exposure," says Dr Mahto. "Exfoliants, acids and too many active ingredients will aggravate the area and are likely to send your skin's complexion into overdrive, so give your skin a break for a few days so it has the chance to recover. Make sure you avoid ingredients such as petroleum, benzocaine, or lidocaine as these can cause further irritation. Use bland emollients instead.

Which products are best for sunburned skin?


Is there anything to help minimise the effects of skin damage?

Dr Mahto stresses that you should keep up your burn after care for as long as possible. "You may need to continue the process of moisturising the skin for at least several weeks in order to prevent the skin from peeling." Once the burn has healed, you need to lather yourself in nourishing skincare, to fight the free radical damage produced by exposure to the sun's radiation. One ingredient in particular, has been found to help dramatically. "Vitamin E has been shown in studies to reduce the number of sunburn cells and limit the potential damage associated with UVB radiation from sunlight," says Mahto. "Cream containing 5-8 per cent vitamin E can also help with signs of ageing due to the sun, such as reducing fine lines. Using Vitamin E and C together in skincare can increase their effects when compared to using them alone." Time to stock up.


When can you go back in the sun?

If you're burnt, don't even think about getting back in your bikini. "Keep covered up from the sun until redness subsides" Dr Anita says. Burn-on-burn is not only painful but very dangerous. Sustained a bad burn in the middle of your holiday? "My advice would be to up your factor," says Dr Mahto. "Make sure you reapply your suncream every two hours and most importantly keep those sunburnt areas well covered."

When should you see a doctor?

It's rare, but sometimes a sunburn can be so bad that it requires medical attention. "If you experience blistering and the skin starts to swell or if you develop a high-fever, headache, nausea and chills, you should go to a doctor," says Dr Mahto. "If blistering occurs don't pop them, as this can lead to infection and scarring. After a shower gently pat the skin dry, rather than vigorously rubbing with a towel."