Treatment for Sunburn

The goals of sunburn treatment are to protect and hydrate the skin, replenish fluids, relieve pain, and reduce the risk for complications (e.g., infection). Mild sunburn in adults and children older than 1 year of age usually can be treated at home. Sunburn in a child under the age of one requires immediate medical attention. People who have an existing medical condition (e.g., lupus) should contact a physician if symptoms become worse following sun exposure.

The first step in treating sunburn is to protect the skin by preventing additional sun exposure. Washing with soap can dry the skin further and also should be avoided.

It is important to use care when choosing products to apply to sunburned skin. First-aid remedies with benzocaine and products (e.g., moisturizers) that contain strong fragrances should be avoided. These products may cause further skin irritation or an allergic response.

When the sunburned area has cooled to the touch—usually after 12-24 hours—moisturizers can be applied to hydrate the skin. Moisturizers should not be used while the skin still feels hot, as this often increases discomfort.

In addition to caring for the skin following sunburn, it also is important to replenish body fluids by drinking plenty of liquids (e.g., water, fruit juice).

Pain and discomfort caused by sunburn can be treated using one or more of the following remedies:

Cool Compresses to Treat Sunburn

Gently place a soft washcloth soaked in cool water over the sunburned skin. After a few minutes, refresh the cloth with cool water and repeat. A solution made of equal parts milk and water can also be used in a compress to soothe sunburned skin.

Aloe Vera Gel to Treat Sunburn

Apply pure, unscented aloe vera gel directly to skin as soon as redness from sunburn develops. Continue to apply aloe vera when the previous layer has dried. Aloe vera gel is available at most pharmacies (usually near the sunscreen) or can be squeezed fresh from the leaves of an aloe vera plant.

Cool Baths to Treat Sunburn

Soaking in a cool-water bath may help relieve sunburn pain. A colloidal oatmeal bath also may be helpful. Colloidal oatmeal, which forms a glue-like substance and remains dispersed throughout the bath water, can be purchased at most pharmacies or made at home.

To make colloidal oatmeal, put about 1 cup of instant (unflavored), quick-cook, or slow-cook oatmeal in a food processor until it becomes a fine powder and then add it directly to a tub of cool bathwater. Colloidal oatmeal can make bathtub surfaces slippery and extra caution should be used when entering and leaving the bathtub.

Pain Relievers to Treat Sunburn

If taken within 6 hours of sun exposure and for 1–2 days, ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) can help reduce the pain and inflammation of sunburn. Check with a pediatrician before using this treatment option in children.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 28 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 02 Jun 2014