Nothing kills a summer buzz like a sunburn, with symptoms like redness and pain that can surface within hours of overstaying your welcome in the sun. In the worst case, you could even experience blistering, dehydration, and fever — but that's just in the short term. While there's no data on the long-term effects of suffering just one sunburn, stats show that sustaining five or more sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 can increase your risk of melanoma — the most deadly type of skin cancer — by 80 percent, according to Shari Lipner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine, and member of the American Academy of Dermatology.
While daily sunscreen use can cut your melanoma risk in half, this handy stat won't help you heal after the damage has been done. The good news: "What you do after sunburn can play a large role in how fast you heal," according to Dr. Lipner, who estimates that burns can take anywhere between three days and a week to heal, depending on severity (the amount of skin that has been burned and how badly).
Here's what you should do beginning the second you realize you're burned.
Sunburn symptoms tend to crop up within a few hours of sun exposure. Hang outside thereafter, and you could do more damage to the area or expand it, according to Dr. Lipner, who warns that sand, salt water, and chlorine can all aggravate the skin to increase pain and potential for infection.
If you can't peel yourself off the beach — which is the smartest move, really — then at least reapply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum of 30 SPF to the affected area and the rest of your body, which is susceptible to sunburn regardless of your base tan — a total myth, FWIW. Then find some shade and cover the exposed area with clothing. Any fabric you can't see light through when you hold it up the sun should have a tight enough weave to protect you. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat is another genius move with a bonus: You'll look ~*cHiC*~ AF despite your lobster-y look.
Because many sunburns aren't just marked by redness but swelling as well, a cool shower or bath can sooth the skin by reducing inflammation. Just hold the bath fizz and the fragrance, and opt for a soothing oatmeal- or soy-based soap instead. And before turning up the temperature, remember that hot water can dry out the skin — particularly chlorinated water in hot tubs.
Because you can't spend the next three to five days in a cool shower, apply a towel-wrapped ice pack to the affected area for quick relief. Leave it on for five minutes, then reapply a few times a day as needed.
While sunburn leaves the outer layer of your skin in shambles, moisturizer can help seal the top layer of broken skin, offering protection from infections and irritation until the skin repairs itself.
While there are plenty of homemade hacks to sooth sunburns, Dr. Lipner says the best topical treatment, by far, is aloe vera, a natural anti-inflammatory that doubles as a cooling agent. OTC hydrocortisone cream takes a close second — particularly if your sunburn feels itchy.
If you have none of the above on hand, check the labels on your go-to moisturizer: Ingredients like soy, oatmeal, and ceramides will protect and sooth the skin, while any fragranced product can irritate the skin — so lay off it.
And if you've managed to burn your scalp and don't want to succumb to greasy roots? Stick with the ice hack above to sooth the skin, and wear a hat anytime you're in the sun.
Sun damage can make your skin extra sensitive to ingredients you typically use without a problem, making way for common allergens to trigger itchiness, rashes, or blisters. Keep things as simple as possible with a gentle cleanser and moisturizer formulated for sensitive skin. Avoid face masks, acne medications, anti-aging products, harsh toners, and exfoliants, plus any products that contain lidocaine or benzocaine, numbing agents that may sound like a good idea, but can actually cause sunburned skin — which is extra sensitive — to flare up, worsening open wounds.
Last thing: Resist the urge to cover up the redness with makeup, which can also act as an irritant and won't do your skin any favors.
Just being in the sun can trigger dehydration, but because you can lose water through damaged skin, sunburns can dry you out even more. And while there isn't a whole lot of data on exactly how much you need to drink to rehydrate, Dr. Lipner recommends refilling your glass a little often more than usual. Just don't let your burn drive you to drink something stronger than water: Alcohol's dehydrating effects won't help you heal any faster.
When taken within the first few hours of sustaining a sunburn and every four to six hours thereafter until the pain subsides, anti-inflammatory pills containing acetaminophen or ibuprofen can reduce inflammation (duh) but also expedite recovery: Once swelling subsides, your skin cells can get down to the dirty work of repairing the sunburned skin's barrier and generating new skin, according to Dr. Lipner.
FWIW, the whole repair thing will only help you so much. Unlike singeing your hand under hot water or near a flame, sunburn reaches below the skin's surface and actually damages your DNA, which leaves you extra susceptible to skin cancer. If only a couple Advil could stop that.
Tight clothing and snug straps can chafe and trigger painful blistering on skin that's already damaged. To save yourself from aggravating the area, wear loose clothing that doesn't stick to the skin — even if it means wearing a strapless bra to keep sunburned shoulders bare. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon blends will keep the skin cool. So those sweat-wicking shirts you wear to the gym will be your BFFs.
Dr. Lipner warns you not to pop or manipulate blisters — just keep them clean, dry, and bandaged or covered with gauze during the day. At night, you can remove the bandages to give you skin some air and prevent the dressing from causing any itching or irritation.
"Areas that have gotten more sunburns are at increased risk for skin cancers," Dr. Lipner says.
Only vigilance can help you avoid further damage and detect any weird skin things that result from lax sun safety. It's why suffering one bad sunburn is ever the more reason to wear sunscreen daily. Use this NCI guide to do a self skin exam once a month to assess any moles and make sure nothing's changing, and see a board-certified dermatologist for an annual examination. "We can only do our best to protect ourselves and our skin," Dr. Lipner says. So really, don't beat yourself up — just be smart now that the damage is done.