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The Best Treatments for Sunburn, According to Dermatologists

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We all know by now that wearing sunscreen every day is crucial. But even the most diligent SPF-wearer can slip up sometimes. Maybe you went in the water too soon after applying, forgot to reapply, left your UV-protective clothes and sun hat at home, or just took a longer beach nap than you planned. Whatever the reason, sunburns can happen even when we try to prevent them — but there are lots of ways to soothe the pain while you wait for one to heal, according to the dermatologists and spa representative we spoke to.

The first thing to do if you get burnt is to get out of the sun, according to dermatologist Dr. Tobechi Ebede from Plaza Park Dermatology. “The normal skin-protection barrier protection is compromised, and symptoms will only get worse if you continue to stay outdoors,” Ebede says. And once inside, be sure to hydrate. “Drink lots of water to replenish the loss that will happen as the skin pulls fluid from the internal organs to heal itself,” she says. After retreating to a cool place and downing a healthy amount of water, it’s time for some soaking, cool compressing, and other treatments to help soothe the pain. Below, all the stuff our experts recommend using to do so (though, if your sunburn is really painful, or turning into blisters, they say to call a doctor first.)

Overall best sunburn treatment

There are plenty of over-the-counter remedies for sunburns, but if you’re only going to choose one, the majority of the dermatologists we spoke to recommend hydrocortisone cream. Dr. Dhaval G. Bhanasuli of Hudson Dermatology & Laser Surgery says that cortisone helps “calm things down quick” after a burn. Dr. Michele Green, a Manhattan-based dermatologist, also recommended hydrocortisone, noting that you can get it either over-the-counter or as a prescription, and that it’s effective for “soothing pain and irritation from a sunburn.” Whether you go OTC or prescription should depend on the severity of the sunburn. “Prescription topical hydrocortisone creams can be very effective in treating sunburns,” says Dr. David Avram of Heights Dermatology and Laser in Brooklyn. “They are potent anti-inflammatory creams that can soothe sunburns rapidly. So if the sunburn is intense see your primary-care physician or dermatologist.” This Aveeno hydrocortisone cream, which other experts previously recommended to us for eczema relief, has oats and aloe (two sunburn-soothing ingredients we’ll come back to), making it an especially good choice.

Best soaking treatment for sunburn

One of the first things you should do after getting a sunburn is take a cool shower, according to many of the experts that we spoke to. A cold shower is “refreshing on sunburned skin, and won’t make your skin dry or cause further irritation,” says Green. If you’re more of a bath person, Kim Zimmerman, of Rescue Spa in Philadelphia, suggests spending some time soaking with St. John’s Wort Bath. You may have heard of St. John’s Wort as an herb that you can take orally for depression, but Zimmerman told us that, within the herbal-healing community, it’s considered a great topical treatment for sunburns (and other burns, too). The Susanne Kaufmann St. John’s Wort bath has sodium bicarbonate (a.k.a. baking soda), which Zimmerman says “helps regulate and balance the body’s pH” and cornstarch, which she calls “a way-back-when DIY remedy for sunburn.”

Best pantry cure for sunburn

Like cornstarch, oatmeal is another classic sunburn treatment that the experts still recommend. Green calls oatmeal “a great product for sunburn,” and says that you can also mix it with cold milk as a compress to soothe sunburned skin. Dr. Neil Sadick of Sadick Dermatology agrees, specifically suggesting soy milk, because it “is a natural anti-inflammatory and soothes the skin post-sun exposure.” After you combine the oatmeal and milk, just put the paste on some gauze and apply gently to your sunburn. “The oatmeal’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties prevents itching, which makes it great for applying on sunburns,” Green explains. Sadick says to apply an oatmeal-milk compress to “to the affected area for 20 minutes, two times a day.” If you want the benefits of oatmeal without raiding your pantry, Aveeno makes a Soothing Bath Treatment formulated with oatmeal (but not milk) that comes in easy-to-use packets, and can also be used to relieve other summer ailments, like heat rash and itchy bug bites. It’s also less expensive than the above St. John’s Wort soak.

Best oral pain reliever for sunburn

Popping an ibuprofen or other NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) can also be helpful if you have a sunburn, according to several of the dermatologists we spoke to. But don’t bother with any pills that promise to prevent sunburn, according to Dr. Jennifer MacGregor of Union Square Laser Dermatology, who notes that if you do take ibuprofen, you should only take it for “the first twenty-four hours after a sunburn.” Ebede seconds the ibuprofen recommendation, and says, “Ibuprofen or any NSAID works wonders for the swelling and inflammation.”

Best lotions, gels, and ointments for sunburn

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Sadick told us that after you apply the cool compress to your sunburn, you can moisturize with Sarna lotion, which will “expedite healing and further soothe the skin.” He also notes that Sarna’s ingredient list includes camphor and menthol, both helpful for healing burns. “Camphor helps to reduce itching and irritation while the menthol works to soothe and cool the skin,” Sadick says.