Skip to Content

Women's Health may earn commission from the links on this page, but we only feature products we believe in. Why Trust Us?

This Sunburn Relief Plan From Dermatologists Is Here To Save Your Skin Fast

Brb, running to CVS.

By Maddy Zollo Rusbosin, Katherine Perry, Alexis Jones and Ashley Abramson
sunburn relief
Jewelyn Butron

Whether you missed a spot or forgot to apply your SPF altogether, it’s never fun to deal with sunburn. It happens when ultraviolet rays damage skin cells, causing redness, swelling, and peeling, according to Melissa Piliang, MD, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic and member of the American Academy of Dermatology. “As the skin heals, those damaged cells make more melanin pigment, which gives us that tan color,” she says.

Even though your painful, inflamed skin might turn golden with a bit of time, sunburn comes with some serious risks. Immediately, of course, you’ll be super uncomfortable—but the real issues happen in the long-term. First of all, your skin becomes injured by ultraviolet radiation. "These are charged molecules that are physically injuring our cells, our proteins, and our fats," says Adam Friedman, MD, a professor of dermatology at George Washington University.

And cellular damage from sunburn can speed up your skin’s aging process and drastically increase your risk of skin cancer. “It only takes one bad sunburn to increase your risk of the deadliest type of skin cancer, which is melanoma,” notes Dr. Piliang.

The best way to stave off pain, premature aging, and skin cancer is to protect your skin from the sun’s rays. But what if the damage is already done? After making a mental note to shield yourself better next time, you should turn your focus to sunburn relief. Your goal, Dr. Piliang says, is to fend off inflammation and cool down your hot, angry skin.

You're going to want some quick and easy methods of relief, especially considering that a sunburn can last anywhere between a few days and several weeks. You want products that restore moisture back to your skin (think: lotions and creams) and soothe peeling or itching (think: ice packs or OTC pain relievers) at the same time.

There’s no magical overnight cure for sunburn (sorry!), but following these 14 dermatologist-backed tips for dealing with the pain can help as you wait it out. Your skin will thank you.

Meet the experts: Melissa Piliang, MD, is a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic and the vice chair of education in the Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute. She also serves as the associate program director for the dermatology residency and dermatopathology fellowship. She is active in American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society of Dermatopathology, where she served as a board member.

Adam Friedman, MD, is a professor and the chair of dermatology at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. He also serves as the residency program director of translational research and the director of the Supportive Oncodermatology Program. He hosts two online series titled “Ask an Expert” and “Ask Dr. Friedman,” as well as the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology podcast “Ask the Investigator."


Take a cold shower

Hands of a young woman taking a hot shower at home
ViktorCap//Getty Images

When your skin is on fire, the last thing you want to do is expose it to hot water. Steaming showers can strip your skin of essential oils, which can dry it out even further and make it more sensitive, Joshua Zeichner, MD, previously told Men's Health.

Rinsing off with cool water, on the other hand, provides immediate relief, says Allison Arthur, MD, a dermatologist with Sand Lake Dermatology Center in Orlando, Florida. If the direct stream of water feels too intense on your skin, try a bath at room temperature.


Avoid using soap on the affected area

Rear View Of Woman Taking Bath At Bathroom
Getty Images

"The reason sunburned skin feels so tight is because it’s desecrated, dry, because you’re losing water from the skin so readily," Dr. Friedman explains. That's why it's so important not to use soap on the sunburnt area, he says. "Soaps, even mild ones can be very drying"—and you don't need any more of that.


Aveeno Grab a moisturizer with colloidal oatmeal

Grab a moisturizer with colloidal oatmeal

Aveeno Grab a moisturizer with colloidal oatmeal

$13 at Amazon$13 at Walmart$13 at

What you really want to focus on is bringing moisture back to the skin. “While your skin is still wet from the shower, apply a moisturizing lotion to provide instant sun relief," Dr. Arthur says.

A great product to use would be one that contains collodial oatmeal, according to Dr. Friedman, and the ingredient is common in many topical products designed for managing eczema. "Collodial oatmeal has both inflammatory properties as well as barrier repair properties," Dr. Friedman says. Both of which are perfect for sunburns. "You’re knocking down the inflammation and signaling to the skin to repair itself,” he adds.

Dr. Friedman recommends Aveeno, but any moisturizer with collodial oatmeal in the ingredient list will do the job.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

This one is obvious but bears repeating. SPF works by keeping UV rays from reaching your skin, which can protect you from cancer-causing radiation. “You want to look for a sunscreen that’s at least SPF 30, one that’s broad spectrum so it protects against UVA and UVB rays, and water-resistant so it stays on when you sweat or get wet,” says Dr. Piliang.

For optimal protection, sunscreen isn’t a one-and-done deal. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends reapplying every two hours when you’re outside, and of course, if you get wet (yes, even if yours is water-resistant, it’s better to be safe than sorry).


Burt's Bees Soothe with aloe vera

Soothe with aloe vera

Burt's Bees Soothe with aloe vera

Now 12% Off

Aloe vera can help speed healing of first- and second-degree burns, research shows. Lotions with aloe vera in them will provide a soothing and cooling feeling to the affected area, Dr. Arthur says.

But make sure to apply this lotion when your skin is still wet from the shower to ensure moisture is locked in. "Do this several times throughout the day, for several days, until your burn has healed," Dr. Arthur says.


Amazon Basic Care Try some topical hydrocortisone

Try some topical hydrocortisone

Amazon Basic Care Try some topical hydrocortisone

"This is probably the only topical steroid you can get over the counter," Dr. Friedman says. So if you're looking for some itch relief ASAP, hydrocortisone one percent is what you want. The cream will reduce swelling, relieve pain, and help prevent you from scratching. Sounds perfect, right?

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Clorox Take a diluted bleach bath

Take a diluted bleach bath

Clorox Take a diluted bleach bath

Dr. Friedman calls this sunburn trick the diluted bleach bath. All you need is a quarter cup of Clorox bleach in a 40 gallon tub of water. “When you put bleach into water, especially normal water that’s a little on the acidic side, it forms hypochlorous acid (HOCl), which actually our immune system uses to fight infections," Dr. Friedman says. "But at very low concentrations it can be anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial." So, not only will it soothe your sunburned skin, it will help protect you against developing a worse infection too.


Dynarex Apply xeroform petrolatum gauze to the burn area

Apply xeroform petrolatum gauze to the burn area

Dynarex Apply xeroform petrolatum gauze to the burn area

Severe sunburns tend to leave your skin blistering or peeling—ouch (and ugh). Do everything you can to resist the urge to pick at them. “Let them heal on their own,” says Dr. Arthur.

And don't even think about attempting to pop the blisters or peel off the top skin on them, she says. This will cause more irritation, prolong recovery, and possibly lead to infection. And if you have blistering on large parts of your body, see the doctor ASAP, adds Francesca Fusco, MD.

If it's a smaller-sized burn, you can limit the peeling by applying xeroform petrolatum gauze to the area, according to Dr. Friedman. Using regular gauze will further dry up the burn; xeroform petrolatum is "overwhelmed with vaseline and typically used for ulcers and burns," Dr. Friedman explains. It will help restore the moisture your skin needs and provide a cooling effect to help with irritation.


Motrin Pop an NSAID

Pop an NSAID

Motrin Pop an NSAID

Now 25% Off

If your sunburn is causing throbbing, achy skin, try a NSAID (e.g., Motrin or Advil). Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories can reduce pain and decrease swelling, per the American Academy of Dermatology.

Tip: Take it at mealtime to prevent stomach upset. Motrin is one that Dr. Friedman recommends to his clients for fast inflammation relief.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Coolibar Invest in a sun hat

Invest in a sun hat

Coolibar Invest in a sun hat

Credit: Coolibar

When dealing with a sunburn you want to focus on two things, Dr. Friedman says: to help it get better *and* prevent it from becoming worse.

Too many of us make the mistake of keeping our skin exposed to the sun when the redness has already started creeping in (perhaps because we think it's already too late to bother). But you're only making matters significantly worse. “Get out of the sun as quickly as possible, and preferably go indoors,” says Dr. Arthur. Dr. Piliang recommends a wide-brimmed hat that shades your face, ears, and the back of your neck—all spots people commonly get skin cancer.

Experts suggest avoiding direct sun exposure until after your burn is healed—even if that means skipping a bikini for the rest of your vacay. But chances are that won't happen. So, opt for a protective (but cute) sunhat.

Shop for a hat with a tightly woven fabric, like canvas, to effectively block sun rays, as the CDC instructs. This hat from Coolibar is canvas, SPF 50+...and already in my shopping cart.


Kinetic Labs Use an ice pack on the injured area

Use an ice pack on the injured area

Kinetic Labs Use an ice pack on the injured area

An ice pack is a short-term fix that will provide you with some much needed relief. How? A lot of the nerves that transmit sensations of pain and burning also detect temperature, Dr. Friedman explains. "So you can essentially fool those nerves into transmitting a cold feeling versus pain or itch," Dr. Friedman says.


Drink plenty of water

Young woman drinking glass of water.
Dougal Waters//Getty Images

A sunburn can cause dehydration (as can a day in the sun) because fluids are drawn to the skin surface and away from the rest of the body, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. So drink a ton of water throughout the day and the days after—enough that your pee looks more clear than yellow.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Seek shade

woman with book on beach
Guido Mieth//Getty Images

The sun’s rays are most powerful between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day, so plan your outdoor activities earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon to avoid those scorching mid-day hours. If you have to be outside, seek shade under a tree or umbrella when the sun’s beating down.

“If you use an umbrella, you should be able to fit fully under it, and you may need to move it around throughout the day so you get the biggest shadow from it,” Dr. Piliang says. Even if you’re in the shade, you need sunscreen!


Steer clear of irritating skin-care ingredients

Beauty industry.
misuma//Getty Images

“Don’t apply products that contain lidocaine and benzocaine, which are topical anesthetics," Dr. Arthur says. "Some people can react to these products, causing further skin inflammation and discomfort.”

You might also want to avoid lotions or topical products with anti-aging ingredients, such as retinol or hydroxy acids, which can aggravate redness and dry out your already-zapped skin, Dr. Fusco says.


Mix a soothing concoction

Glass of Water Milk and Orange juice.
T-STUDIO//Getty Images

Got a localized burn—as in you missed a spot during your sunscreen application, or the back of your neck got scorched? A cold compress can give you fast sunburn relief.

Try soaking a washcloth in equal amounts cool milk and ice water, then pressing the cloth against the area until the coolness fades, Dr. Fusco suggests. The coolness, pH levels, and the proteins of the milk all help soothe the skin—and make you a much happier camper.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

CALIA by Carrie Underwood Wear protective clothing

Wear protective clothing

CALIA by Carrie Underwood Wear protective clothing

Now 20% Off

If you do have to be in the sunlight before a burn completely heals ('cause, well, life), deck yourself out in UV-protective clothing. You can find them at sporting goods stores, Dr. Arthur notes, or from brands like Athleta or the North Face. Look for a tag with the "UPF" label. (This top from Dick's Sporting Goods has a UV UPF 50+.)

And you should probably hang up your skinny jeans for the time being too—tight clothes can rub you raw and make you even more prone to peeling, while synthetic materials can irritate your tender skin. Stick to loose, breathable bottom made of cotton or linen. (As if you needed another excuse to break out that cute maxi dress.)

Woman's healthWoman's health Lettermark logo
Maddy Zollo Rusbosin

Maddy Zollo Rusbosin is a freelance writer living in sunny Orlando, Florida. She loves writing about all things beauty since it gives her the excuse to play with makeup all day – and scare her husband while she's testing out the latest face masks. 

Woman's healthWoman's health Lettermark logo
wordpress import
Headshot of Alexis Jones
Assistant Editor

Alexis Jones is an assistant editor at Women's Health where she writes across several verticals on, including life, health, sex and love, relationships and fitness, while also contributing to the print magazine. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, lives in Brooklyn, and proudly detests avocados.

Watch Next
preview for Women's Health US Section - All Sections & Videos


best microcurrent facial devices in 2023 per dermatologists and rave reviews

8 Best Microcurrent Devices, Per Dermatologists

best self tanner for face

Best Face Self Tanners For Glowy, Bright Skin

best powder sunscreens of 2022

Powder Sunscreens Are The Easiest SPF Hack

womens health beauty awards

Women’s Health Beauty Award Winners 2023

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
twitter icon
youtube icon
facebook icon
instagram icon
pinterest icon
Hearst Young Women's Group - A Part of Hearst Digital Media

A Part of Hearst Digital Media

We may earn commission from links on this page, but we only recommend products we back.

©2023 Hearst Magazine Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Privacy NoticeCA Notice at CollectionYour CA Privacy Rights/Shine the LightDAA Industry Opt OutTerms of UseSite Map