Get Sunburn Relief With Home Remedies for Pain & Inflammation

Simple ways to cool the burn

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When you need sunburn relief, you don't want to wait around for it. Even mild sunburn can cause redness, pain, and slight skin inflammation for a few days. You may also itch as it heals, especially if your sunburned skin peels off.

You can find ways to alleviate the pain and itch right in your own home, though, or with a quick trip to a grocery or drug store, so you can get sunburn relief fast.

A woman with a sunburned back stands on a beach.

Justin Pumfrey / Getty Images

Home Remedies & Lifestyle

From soothing your skin to making yourself comfortable to safeguarding your health, things you probably already have around the home may be the best thing for sunburn pain.

Many of these remedies involve topical treatments (applied directly to the skin). With any topical remedy, you should test it on a small area to see if it irritates your skin or you're allergic to it.

Cool Baths or Showers

Brief baths, showers, and towel compresses (hydrotherapy) used periodically throughout the day may help get your sunburned skin cooled down and keep it hydrated. The temperature of the water should be cool to lukewarm. Water that's too hot can strip the natural oils of the skin—not to mention adding to your pain. Also avoid soap, since it can be drying and irritating.

After a bath or shower, pat your skin gently with a soft towel but don't dry it completely. Use a moisturizer to trap that left-over water in your skin to keep it from drying out more.

Aloe Vera Gel

Fresh aloe vera stem and gel on wooden table, skin therapy concept, copy space
Sundaemorning / Getty Images

Aloe is a plant native to Africa. The long green leaves contain aloe gel, which research suggests has anti-inflammatory effects and speeds up your body's regeneration of damaged skin. It also moisturizes the skin and may help prevent peeling. As a folk remedy, it's long been used topically to soothe burned skin and to help heal wounds.

A lot of drug stores and health-food stores carry pure aloe vera gel. You can also use it right from the plant—cut off a spear, split it open, and rub the clear gel from the inside of the leaf on your skin. (Avoid the sticky yellow part.) To make it extra soothing, you can put your aloe vera gel in the refrigerator for a few minutes.

Severe Burn? See a Doctor

Aloe gel and other home remedies should not be used for severe burns or wounds. Those should be evaluated and treated by a medical professional.

Topical Vinegar

Plain white vinegar or apple cider vinegar are popular sunburn remedies. Although there's no scientific evidence behind this folk remedy, many people stand by it and you can find all kinds of claims about it on the internet.

However, vinegar is acidic and can cause chemical burns if it's not diluted enough. Some recommendations say it's safe if you use equal parts vinegar and water, but again, this is only backed by anecdotal evidence and not science. If you try this sunburn treatment, use caution.

Suggested methods of using vinegar and water to soothe a sunburn include:

  • Putting it in a spray bottle and periodically spritzing your skin
  • Soaking washcloths in it and placing them on your skin
  • Taking a bath in it

Baking Soda Baths

As with vinegar, a lot of people suggest putting a few tablespoons of baking soda into your bath water to help ease sunburned skin, but without any scientific backing for their claims. Baking soda is not an acid, though, and mixing a little in a tub of water won't burn your skin.

You can find claims that baking soda can alleviate the inflammation of a sunburn and the itch that comes from peeling. Some people say baking soda and water, mixed into a paste and slathered on, is effective as well.

While some evidence does indicate that baking soda has anti-inflammatory effects, those effects come from drinking a baking soda tonic, not topical use.

Essential Oils

Some essential oils, when used topically, are believed to have properties that may help alleviate sunburn symptoms. While research on essential oils isn't extensive, some evidence does suggest several may effectively reduce inflammation and promote healthy skin, which may offer benefits to sunburns. These oils include:

Just because essential oils are natural products doesn't mean they're without side effects and risks. Always be aware of potential problems and discuss all treatment decisions with your doctor.

Oatmeal Baths

Oats in a wooden spoon sit on a wooden tray along with a rolled-up pink towel.

Jelena Irikova / Getty Images

Oatmeal baths have some scientific backing for their use in sunburns. While they haven't been studied specifically for sunburn pain and other symptoms, research suggests oatmeal has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and skin-repairing properties—all of which may benefit sunburned skin—that make it an effective bath additive for atopic dermatitis (skin-based allergic reactions).

You can buy commercial products made for oatmeal baths or make your own at home with a blender, oats, and water.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is shown by studies to have numerous benefits to your skin. It's a:

  • Moisturizer
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antimicrobial
  • Skin protectant

It hasn't been studied specifically for sunburns, but it's frequently recommended as a sunburn treatment. Some dermatologists online have raised concerns that coconut oil may irritate a sunburn or may trap in the heat and make it worse (as happens with butter). If you want to try coconut oil on your sunburn, it may be best to wait until most of the burn is gone and use it to help your skin heal.

REMEDY  SCIENCE-BASED? SIDE EFFECTS/RISKS
Cool bath/shower No No
Aloe vera gel Yes No
Vinegar No Yes
Baking soda  No No
Essential oils  Yes Yes
Oatmeal bath Yes No
Coconut oil  Yes Yes

Hydrate

The same hot, sunny conditions that lead to the worst sunburns can also dehydrate you, which can make it harder for your body to heal. A sunburn adds to dehydration because it steals fluid from other tissues around your body and draws them to the skin's surface. Dehydration causes symptoms including:

  • Intense thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry skin
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Less urine and sweat than is typical
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness

Symptoms of severe dehydration warrant immediate medical attention. They are:

  • Confusion
  • Fainting
  • Going long periods without urinating
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Shock (weak pulse, loss of consciousness, sweating, pale skin, cool hands and feet)

Drinking plenty of water and other liquids can help keep your body hydrated, functioning properly, and better able to heal from the sunburn.

Use the Air Mattress

Sunburns already can make it hard to sleep because of the pain, but when your bed absorbs the heat your skin is putting off and radiates that back out to you, it just makes everything worse. An alternative to consider when you have a sunburn is using an air mattress, as they retain less heat.

You may want to cover the air mattress with a sheet to keep your damaged skin from sticking to the plastic. Make sure you're using bedding made of fabrics that are soft, lightweight, and breathable—like cotton—so it doesn't add to your discomfort overnight.

If you don't have an air mattress, you might want to try adding extra layers between you and the mattress on your bed. Also, do what you can to keep your bedroom nice and cool.

Loose Clothing

Clothes that fit snuggly are likely to exacerbate your sunburn pain, so make sure to wear loose clothing. You want it to breathe so it doesn't retain heat from your skin, so try to choose lightweight, natural fabrics (again, cotton is a good choice.)

Elastic bands and scratchy fabrics are also things you'll probably want to avoid for a few days. However, to protect your skin from UV rays when you're outside, make sure it's a tightly woven fabric. You shouldn't be able to see through it when you hold it up to the light.

Protective Polyphenols

Some research shows that polyphenols in food, consumed or used topically, may help provide protection from sunburn and skin damage from UV rays. Polyphenols that have been studied for this purpose come from:

Over-the-Counter Therapies

If the DIY remedies around your house aren't doing the trick, you can pick up a few things at a grocery or drug store. You may want to plan ahead and make sure these items are in your medicine cabinet before the pools open for the summer.

Aspirin & NSAIDs

Aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) can help reduce the inflammation and pain from a sunburn. However, aspirin may be the best choice because animal research shows it protects your skin from sun damage that can cause skin cancer.

Taking one of these medications early can help prevent sunburn-related inflammation and the additional pain it can cause.

Itch-Reducing Powder

If your sunburn itches, you can use itch-reducing powders made for treating rashes. It may be something you apply directly to your skin, add to a bath, or put in the water you use to make a cold compress.

Hydrocortisone Cream

Hydrocortisone cream is a good remedy for pain and itching. Just dab it onto the worst areas for a little relief. Don't use it over large areas or on children unless directed to by a doctor. though, and don't use it on children without medical advice.

Things to Avoid

Sometimes, what you shouldn't do is just as important as what you should do. Several things you might not expect to be a problem can exacerbate your sunburn symptoms.

Perfumes

Most perfumes, colognes, and body sprays contain alcohol, and alcohol can dry and irritate your skin. It's best to avoid fragrances when you have a sunburn. If you really want to wear some, try dabbing it on places that aren't burned rather than spraying it over large areas.

Also, some perfume ingredients may increase your sun sensitivity, so it's a good idea to skip them before you go out in the sun, as well.

Soaps

Soaps can remove the protective oils on the outside of your skin and can cause drying, so be sure to avoid them when you're sunburned. Rinsing in cool water should be adequate for a few days. However, if you need to clean your skin more than that, opt for a gentle soap or skin cleansers that are gentle and fragrance-free.

Medicines Ending in -caine

Medicated ointments and topical pain relievers sometimes contain medicines that end in "-caine," as in benzocaine or lidocaine. While these products may help some kinds of pain, they're not recommended for treating sunburns because they can irritate your skin. Also, some people have allergic reactions to them, which can include hives and itching that would be extremely unpleasant on top of a sunburn.

Peeling Your Skin/Popping Blisters

Your skin may begin to peel between three and seven days after a sunburn. It does this because the cells are damaged and at risk of becoming cancerous. Cells have a mechanism for dealing with this, and it's called apoptosis, or "cellular suicide." That peeling skin is the result of mass cellular suicide.

If your burn is second-degree or worse, it may result in blisters. They may show up soon after a sunburn or take a while to develop.

Both peeling skin and blisters have a protective function. You have new skin growing beneath them, and that new skin is vulnerable to damage. While it may be hard to resist, not peeling your skin or popping your blisters helps that new layer of skin grow. In addition, popping blisters can lead to infection.

When to See a Doctor

You should get medical attention for a sunburn if you have:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Vomiting
  • Severe blistering
  • Severe pain
  • Signs of infection
  • Worsening symptoms

Is it Sun Poisoning?

If you get a severe case of sunburn, or you have an allergic reaction to the sun, you could have sun poisoning rather than a simple burn. While a sunburn will go away on its own in a few days, sun poisoning should get medical attention. Symptoms include:

  • Blisters, especially on the lips
  • Rash
  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Dizziness/lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Shortness of breath

Frequently Answered Questions

How long does a sunburn last?

How long a sunburn lasts depends on how severe it is. Peeling often doesn't begin until after the burn itself has subsided and usually occurs between 5 and 7 days after the start of the burn.

Mild Sunburn 3 days May be followed by peeling
Moderate Sunburn  5 days  Usually followed by peeling
Severe Sunburn  7 days+ Usually involves peeling

How do I get rid of peeling skin from a sunburn?

You shouldn't peel or exfoliate the skin after a sunburn. The best course of action for peeling skin is to treat it gently, moisturize it well (such as with aloe vera gel), and allow it to slough off on its own.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to sunburns, proper treatment after the fact is important, but even more important is preventing sunburns in the first place. Sun damage increases your risk of skin cancer, so protect your health by wearing sunscreen, avoiding long periods of sun exposure, and covering your skin when exposure can't be avoided.

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