How to Treat a Sunburn

Tips to Help Soothe and Heal Sun-Injured Skin

Sunburn treatment always starts with sunburn prevention. This includes restricting sun exposure, particularly in the midday when the sun is at its highest, and consistently using a sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF).

If sunburn does occur, there are things you can do to help ease the pain and heal the skin injury more effectively. In severe cases, urgent medical care may be needed.

Applying healing ointment on a sunburn
Photoboyko / Getty Images 

What Is a Sunburn?

Sunburn is a type of radiation burn caused by the overexposure of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. This causes direct DNA damage to skin cells and triggers a defensive immune response in which the body destroys damaged cells through a process known as apoptosis (programmed cell death).

As layers of dead tissue begin to peel away, the body will repair damaged DNA so that new cells can replace old ones. It will also produce additional melanin, a type of pigment that better absorbs UV radiation, to prevent future damage.

Sunburn can occur in less than 15 minutes, depending on your skin type, time of year, time of day, and even the latitude of your location. Certain photosensitizing drugs can also increase your risk.

If overexposed to UV radiation, the skin will begin to turn red within 30 minutes to six hours, with pain peaking between six and 48 hours.

Depending on the severity of the burn, the symptoms (pain, itching, blistering, and swelling) will continue for one to three days. Nausea, fever, chills, and fainting may also occur if the sunburn is severe. Peeling may commence within three to eight days and continue for several weeks in some cases.

Second-Degree Sunburn

Sunburns rarely develop into third-degree burns, but both first-degree and second-degree sunburns are common. Second-degree sunburns, characterized by the development of blisters, are just as serious as burns caused by a fire or chemical exposure.

Second-degree sunburns are concerning because they tend to involve larger portions of the body. Seek immediate medical care if blisters cover more than 20% of the body or the symptoms fail to improve after two days.

Call 911 or seek emergency care if you experience disorientation, fainting, high fever, numbness, excessive swelling, visual changes, or seizures as a result of a sunburn.

How to Treat Sunburn

The first step to treating a sunburn is recognizing the symptoms. The moment that skin redness develops, cover up and get out of the sun. Apply additional suntan lotion won't reverse whatever damage has already been done or prevent the swelling, itching, or blistering that may develop.

Once you are out of the sun:

  • Take frequent cool baths or showers to reduce the pain. It also helps to use air conditioning to keep room temperatures cool.
  • Apply moisturizer after every bath or shower. Doing so reduces the moisture loss caused by bathing and helps mitigate some of the itchiness.
  • Apply a soy or aloe vera moisturizer. Soy and aloe vera cream both a cooling effect that can help ease the pain. You can enhance the effect by leaving the moisturizer in the fridge. Do not apply butter, cocoa butter, or any type of oil to a sunburn.
  • Apply 1% hydrocortisone cream to injured skin. You can apply over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream three times daily to unbroken skin, including the skin around popped blisters. Do not use benzocaine or any ointments with the suffix "-caine" as they can cause skin irritation.
  • Drink extra water. Blistering skin can cause water loss. Drinking extra water prevents dehydration and assists with wound repair.
  • Take ibuprofen or aspirin to reduce pain, if needed.
  • Do not pop blisters. Allow them to heal naturally. If the skin begins to itch as the blister dries, apply moisturizer rather than scratching or picking at the wound.
  • Avoid sun exposure while healing. If you need to be outdoors, wear protective clothing with a tight weave and apply sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30.

Sunburn Prevention

Every effort should be made to avoid sunburns. Sunburns not only age skin cells but increase the risk of solar lentigo ("liver spots") and skin cancer. Excessive sun exposure is associated with all major forms of skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

To reduce the risk of sun damage, avoid going out into the sun between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. when the UV index is at its highest.

If you have to be outdoors, apply sunscreen, wear protective clothing (including a hat and sunglasses), and keep in the shade if at all possible.

Reapply sunscreen every two to three hours or after swimming or heavy perspiration. Do not forget the back of your neck, nose, rims of the ears, and tops of your feet. A high-SPF lip balm is also useful.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lee CH, Wu SB, Hong CH, Yu HS, Wei YH. Molecular Mechanisms of UV-Induced Apoptosis and Its Effects on Skin Residential Cells: The Implication in UV-Based Phototherapy. Int J Mol Sci. 2013;14(3):6414-35. doi:10.3390/ijms14036414

  2. Northwestern Medicine. Quick Dose: When Should I See a Doctor for Sunburn?

  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Treating Sunburn

  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Liver spots

Additional Reading

By Rod Brouhard, EMT-P
Rod Brouhard is an emergency medical technician paramedic (EMT-P), journalist, educator, and advocate for emergency medical service providers and patients.