It happens to all of us – even the most vigilant sunscreen devotees. You spend a little too much time in the sun before reapplying (or you accidentally miss a spot) and inevitably turn bright red. Ouch! What to do?
Lucky for you, there are a number of natural sunburn remedies to help heal scorched skin. But first, let’s start with the basics.
What is sunburn?
Sunburn happens when UV radiation from the sun damages skin cells. When your body senses the damage, it sends blood to the site to repair it, causing sunburn’s telltale redness. The damaged cells die off and new skin cells take their place, causing that oh-so-attractive peeling. But sunburn is not just a cosmetic issue. The DNA of remaining cells may also suffer damage, upping your risk of skin cancer.
Some sunburns are minor and will heal on their own within a few days. More serious burns may require medical attention. If your burn is accompanied by nausea, rash, headache, chills or dizziness, see a doctor immediately. You may have what’s called sun poisoning, another term for sunburn so severe it causes a systemic response.
Sun poisoning is more common if you have fair skin. Certain drugs, including antibiotics, hormonal birth control, and diabetes medication can increase the risk of sun poisoning, so take extra precautions if you take any of these drugs.
If you like to use essential oils — and who doesn’t? — avoid citruses like bergamot, lime and grapefruit before enjoying time in the sun. These and a few other oils can cause a phototoxic reaction on your skin when applied before sun exposure. More info on essential oil phototoxicity here.
How to avoid sunburn
It may sound obvious, but the best way to prevent sunburn is to avoid the sun.
Seek shade, cover up and wear sunscreen when you’ll be in the sun for extended periods, especially in the middle of the day, when UV radiation is highest. Here’s how to choose the best natural sunscreen.
A diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods, especially fruits and vegetables high in vitamins C & E and beta carotene have been shown to help protect against sun damage. Omega-3 fatty acids like fish oil also help protect skin from burning. More reasons to follow a Mediterranean diet!
While small amounts of sun exposure are great for your health , enjoy the sun wisely and avoid sunburn as best you can. When you get a little too much sun, try the home remedies below to help your skin heal quickly.
Sunburn draws fluids to the site of the burn, so drink plenty of liquids to keep from getting dehydrated. Feast on water-rich foods like watermelon, which also contain compounds that can help skin heal.
2. Apply aloe vera
Aloe vera’s soothing properties are well known. A fresh leaf from a home-grown aloe plant is a quick and easy remedy for sunburn. To use, cut a leaf from the base of your plant and scrape out the gel with a spoon. You can apply it directly to the burn, or run it through the blender if you prefer a smoother gel.
If you don’t have access to a fresh plant, you can use a bottled aloe gel. Just be sure to choose one without chemical additives.
3. Make a green or black tea compress
Both green tea and black tea have anti-inflammatory compounds that can help calm burnt skin. Brew an extra-strong cup of tea and allow to cool before soaking a clean washcloth. Place the soaked washcloth in the fridge to increase its soothing properties. Apply for 15 minutes.
Add ice to the tea you’re not putting on your skin and sip to get the antioxidant benefits of the tea from the inside as well.
4. Take an oatmeal bath
An oatmeal bath is a tried and true skin-soothing remedy. You can purchase oatmeal that’s already been ground for the bath or make your own by pulverizing oats in a blender for a minute. You can also place oatmeal in a cotton bag and let it soak in your bathwater. Always use lukewarm water for after-sun baths.
You can add soothing herbs to your oatmeal bath to increase its effectiveness. Place oatmeal and dried or fresh herbs in a cotton or muslin bag and place in the bathtub while it fills. Try lavender, chamomile or calendula.
5. Turn to baking soda
Baking soda really does have a zillion uses! To soothe a sunburn, add one cup of baking soda to a cool bath, or dissolve a few tablespoons in a cup of cold water and apply as a compress.
6. Try apple cider vinegar
A soak in a cool tub with a cup of apple cider vinegar may reduce pain from sunburn. You can also make a spray by diluting apple cider vinegar with an equal amount of water or soak a washcloth and make a compress. Better still, infuse vinegar with some of the soothing herbs below.
7. Get herbal
Several dried herbs or essential oils are useful for treating sunburn. Make a cooling spray of peppermint tea or a soothing compress with chamomile.
You can also add a drop of essential oil to your aloe gel or add several drops to your oatmeal or baking soda bath. Peppermint, lavender, chamomile, and calendula are all good choices for sunburned skin.
You can also make a homemade after sun spray incorporating these soothing herbs with witch hazel, another useful skin soother.
8. Slather on milk or Greek yogurt
A compress soaked in cool whole milk can be applied to skin for 10-15 minutes. Coating skin with plain, whole milk yogurt can also soothe a sunburn. Rinse off after 15 minutes.
9. Forage a soothing compress
Many of the weeds growing in our gardens have impressive powers to treat common ailments, including sunburn. A particularly easy-to-find and useful weed is plantain, which thrives in poor soils. Brew a strong tea from the leaves and allow to cool before spraying on skin. You can also infuse vinegar with plantain early in the season and have it on hand for soothing sprays all summer long.
Other common “weeds” that can be put to use in a compress, infused in a spray, or added to the bath include chickweed and yarrow.
10. Hasten healing
Choose one of the options above, or mix multiple ingredients for additional healing power, like adding cooling peppermint to your green tea compress, or aloe to your yogurt mask.
While your skin is healing, don’t:
- Pull off peeling skin
- Break blisters
- Spend any unprotected time in the sun
- Cover the burn with makeup
- Put fragrance products on burnt skin
- Apply heavy oils
Go enjoy some fun in the sun — carefully! — and have these home remedies on hand for those times when your skin needs a little help healing from too much sun exposure.