This story was originally published in August 2018.
Sunburns have a way of sneaking up. On sunny summer days, out by the pool or on the lake, it’s easy to overlook the pink blooming on your shoulders and cheeks. By the time you notice the damage, it’s often too late. Your skin is radiating heat, and it stings at the lightest touch.
So what do you do?
Fortunately, there are many options. This predicament is so common and painful that people have scrambled throughout history to find the most effective sunburn soothers.
So let’s start with the simplest of remedies and work up to the lesser-known, hard-to-find tonics for sunburn pain relief and healing.
When you have a sunburn, it’s important to drink plenty of water to replenish your fluid levels. Water can also help soothe the pain of the burn.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, placing a cold, damp towel on your skin for 10 to 15 minutes a few times a day can help soothe minor sunburns by sapping the heat from your skin. Cool baths and showers can also help relieve the pain. Afterward, gently pat yourself dry, leaving a little water on your skin, then apply moisturizer to help trap the water in your skin.
But avoid putting ice packs directly on your skin. According to the Mayo Clinic, placing ice on a burn can actually cause further damage.
Aloe vera is one of the most common sunburn remedies. A clear, jelly-like substance found in the inner leaf of aloe plants, aloe vera appears to shorten the duration of wound healing for first- and second-degree burns, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also easily be cooled in the refrigerator to soothe sunburn pain and cool the skin.
Because it’s so widely known to help burns, aloe vera is a key ingredient in many creams and lotions. However, you want to make sure not to use products that contain petroleum, benzocaine or lidocaine. Petroleum traps the heat into your skin, and the other two ingredients can irritate your skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. If in doubt, simply use pure aloe vera.
“I always have an aloe vera plant in case I have a burn,” said Dr. Julie Forbes, naturopathic doctor with an office in North Bridgton. “I take a frond off and apply it.”
Another common sunburn soother is calendula, Forbes said. A common garden plant with yellow or orange flowers, calendula has been used in medicine for centuries and for good reason. Pharmacological studies reveal that it exhibits antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Like aloe, calendula is available in creams, but it also comes in tincture and pellet form. Both the tincture and the pellets can be consumed, or they can be diluted or dissolved in water to be dabbed or sprayed onto the skin.
Because sunburns can be so sneaky, people are often caught unprepared. So over the years, people have experimented with common household items and foods to try and relieve the sting.
Milk, apple cider vinegar, yogurt and potato slices have all been used to alleviate sunburn pain and rehydrate skin.
“I remember my mother put cucumber slices on me once,” Forbes said.
It’s up for debate whether these traditional, at-home remedies actually work. But if you do a little digging, there is some science behind it.
Cucumbers, for instance, contain antioxidants, which inhibit oxidation, a chemical reaction that can damage skin cells. Cucumbers also have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, according to a 2015 study conducted by the University of Nigeria published in the British Journal of Pharmaceutical Research.
Developed in Germany more than 200 years ago, homeopathic medicine is based on two key beliefs. The first is that “like cures like,” meaning a person can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms. And the second is the “law of minimum dose,” which is the concept that the lower the dose of medication, the greater its effectiveness. Therefore, many homeopathic medicines are heavily diluted.
“From my perspective, the most effective thing to treat sunburns is homeopathy,” said Forbes, who utilizes a wide variety of medicines and therapies to treat her patients.
Utilizing homeopathic medicines, Forbes has treated sunburns with rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy), Apis mellifica (made from a honeybee) and Cantharis vesicatoria (which is prepared from an iridescent green beetle which contains cantharidin, a toxic blistering agent). These medicines come in a variety of forms, including pellets, ointments and gels.
These remedies also come tinctures, which you can dilute with cold water, Forbes said. You can then create a cold compress by taking a pad of soft, absorbent cloth and soaking it in the mixture, then applying it to your skin.
Urtica urens, medicine made from a small stinging nettle plant, is also a common homeopathic remedy for sunburns. As is a flowering plant called St. John’s wort, though it needs to be used in its diluted, homeopathic form. If this plant is taken in high dosage, it can actually increase your sensitivity to the sun.
Because homeopathic medicine involves substances that can be toxic or harmful in certain forms, it’s important to consult a doctor if you’d like to try any of these remedies.
Take sunburns seriously
Built upon countless studies, the link between skin cancer and sun exposure is significant. In fact, one UK study found that about 86 percent of melanomas — the most common type of cancer — can be attributed to exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. And on average, a person’s risk of melanoma doubles after more than five sunburns.
In addition, sun exposure has been found to accelerate skin aging.
Armed with that information, many people take sun exposure seriously nowadays by seeking out shade, avoiding tanning beds, wearing hats and protective clothing, and using plenty of sunscreen.
However, in recent years, there’s been concern that the chemicals in certain sunscreens could actually increase risks of cancer. This has raised such alarm that multiple scientific studies have been conducted that support and disprove these claims, creating confusion.
These same chemical sunscreens have been flagged for their potential to harm coral reefs. In July, the governor of Hawaii signed the first bill in the country that will ban sunscreens containing chemicals harmful to coral reefs, to go into effect in 2021.
The Skin Cancer Foundation advised against this, stating that “by removing access to a significant number of products, this ban will give people another excuse to skip sun protection, putting them at greater risk for skin cancer.”
Other options include mineral sunscreens that contain tiny particles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that protect the skin by scattering and deflecting UV rays. These types of sunscreens are available in stores and online from companies including The Honest Co. and Neutrogena. Sunproof clothing, hats and beach umbrellas are also great forms of protection.
However you choose to protect yourself from the sun, be vigilant, even on overcast days. Otherwise you’ll be slathering yourself with gooey aloe vera, experimenting with cucumber and potato slices, and wishing you’d been just a little more careful.