Gail Ingram is a primary care nurse practitioner and has pasty white skin that burns easily. She shares evidence-based sunburn recovery tips to get you feeling better fast.
I’m going to skip the guilt trip about not using sunscreen and jump right to the remedies. The following sunburn treatments are listed in order of importance and effectiveness:
1. Ibuprofen (brand name Advil or Motrin) is key for a speedy recovery and needs to be taken as soon as possible. Repeat every 4-6 hours for 1-2 days. Sunburns are an inflammatory response and the anti-inflammatory properties of ibuprofen will minimize redness and swelling in addition to relieving the pain.
2. Topical diclofenac gel (brand name Voltaren) works to reduce pain and inflammation but obtaining it can be a hassle since it requires a prescription. Plan ahead if you are going on a sunny vacation where you may get burned; fill the prescription and bring it with you. But be warned that some people can develop a rash with diclofenac gel, and if you think you could be one of them, test a small patch of skin before slathering it all over yourself.
3. Get an over-the-counter product that contains pramoxine. Pramoxine is marketed as an anti-itch medication but it works well on sunburns, too. Sarna lotion is a great choice because the pramoxine numbs the pain while the lotion soothes and moisturizes. Sarna is usually found in the first aid section at the drug store, not the beauty isle. Don’t be distracted by other sunburn products since the combined effects of ibuprofen and pramoxine should be all you need.
4. Topical products containing aluminum acetate will dry and heal blisters. It’s also called Burow’s solution and it is applied by using a compress. Dumboro packets are commonly found in drug stores and will work just fine.
5. If all you’ve got is lotion, use it (but not on blisters). Unscented, plain white lotion is best and it will help with skin healing.
6. Cold compresses, showers, or baths are helpful. Remember to do this before applying topical treatments, not after.
7. Drink extra water to prevent dehydration.
8. Aloe vera is overrated. There is no evidence that aloe vera gel is more soothing or effective than basic lotion. So use aloe as a secondary treatment since it isn’t going to outperform what I’ve previously listed. Calamine lotion can relieve discomfort, but it is messy and what I’ve suggested above is more effective. There isn’t data to support the use of steroids (over-the-counter hydrocortisone, prescription topical corticosteroids, or prednisone tablets) on sunburns so don’t bother.
Sunburns usually peak at 12 – 24 hours after exposure and most cases resolve around 3 days. Blisters usually take between 7 to 10 days to heal. Check in with your health practitioner if you’ve got systemic symptoms (fast heartbeat, dizziness, fever, headache, and vomiting), because you may require IV fluids and injectable pain relievers.
Note: This post is directed to healthy adults, not children or other special populations.