Why You Should Stop Putting Ice On Your Sunburns (And What To Do Instead)

How To Treat A Sunburn, According To ExpertsBSIP - Getty Images

The only thing that can put a damper on a long-awaited trip to the beach (aside from less than stellar weather) is heading home after a few hours in the sun and realizing you've been sunburned.

If that's the case, you're probably wondering how long the pain, redness, and discomfort that have followed your hours in the sun will last—and, simply put, it depends.

Meet Our Experts: Mona Gohara, MD, Women's Health advisory board member and board-certified dermatologist, Debra Jaliman, MD, New York-based board-certified dermatologist

"It depends on how severe the burn is and how deep it is. If it's just red, it may take a couple of days. If you have blistering, it may take up to two weeks" says Women's Health advisory board member Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. "When you get a burn you're literally killing the top layer of your epidermis (or the top layer of your skin cells). So it takes a while for that to regenerate."

There are several uncomfortable side effects of a sunburn, including pain, itchiness, redness, peeling, fever, and maybe even blistering. Everyone experiences sunburns differently. However, that doesn't mean the consequences aren't similar. "Five regular sunburns and one blistering sunburn can double your lifetime risk of melanoma," adds Dr. Gohara. That's why sunscreen, amongst other preventative measures, is essential year round.

Not sure what's best? Read on for 11 expert tips on how to treat a sunburn and heal your skin safely and effectively.

1. Avoid ice and freezing water

A common misconception about treating sunburns is that applying ice directly to the affected areas will help, but unfortunately, that can actually make matters worse. "Do not put ice on a sunburn," says New York-based board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD. "You can get frostbite in addition to the burn. Also, the ice will constrict the blood vessels in the area, which will decrease blood flow and slow healing."

2. Use a cold compress or take a cool shower

If you still want to use cold temps to treat your burn, try using a cold compress or taking a cool shower as a safer alternative. "Cool temperatures subside inflammation," says Dr. Gohara. For a sunburn that's affecting a smaller area, she recommends putting a wet cloth in the freezer and applying it where needed.

3. Use aloe vera with caution

Aloe vera is one of the most popular remedies when it comes to treating sunburn, and there's a good reason for that. "Aloe is an anti-inflammatory that also helps with redness," says Dr. Jaliman.

Although it's packed with antioxidants and other vitamins (A, C, and E) that help repair the skin, aloe vera should also be used with caution. "Aloe, believe it or not, can cause more irritation," says Dr. Gohara. She points out that some people may be sensitive to the ingredient, which can backfire.

If you know you're not allergic or sensitive to aloe vera, you can either buy a lotion with aloe that's fragrance-free or use it directly from the plant, suggests Dr. Jaliman. Just make sure to avoid products high in alcohol: they may burn your skin.

4. Take an oat bath or make an oat mask

Because oatmeal is also anti-inflammatory, you can take an oat bath to alleviate your symptoms. To prep a bath, simply add a cup of oats to your bath water and soak in it for about 15 minutes.

If you only have a sunburn in specific areas rather than all over your body, Dr. Gohara recommends using an oat paste with milk instead. "Milk has proteins in it that heal the skin, so you can put a dab of cool milk with oats to create a mixture to put on the skin if [the burn] is localized," she explains.

Important note: Do not scrub your skin with oats. Doing so can cause more inflammation. If you're worried about friction between the oats and your burn, try an oat-based cleanser.

5. Try over-the-counter medicine

As mentioned above, sunburns can lead to several unpleasant side effects that can start to feel unbearable after a while. Luckily, you can go to your local pharmacy for an over-the-counter option to temporarily alleviate your symptoms. "You can use ibuprofen or acetaminophen or even aspirin for the pain and inflammation," says Dr. Jaliman. Dr. Gohara adds that cortisone cream is another popular option.

6. Drink water

Drinking water after a long day in the sun can be a total plus, and although it may be helpful to your body overall (and is recommended), it won't be the sole reason why your sunburn is cured. "Drinking water will hydrate your body and keep you healthy, but doesn't have an anti-inflammatory effect," says Dr. Gohara. Like anything you consume, drinking water will benefit you from the inside out. Just don't expect it to be your go-to quick fix.

7. Don't pop blisters

In more severe cases, you may notice that your sunburn has led to blisters. As is, sunburns feel unpleasant, but the blisters may add an extra layer of discomfort. Still, it's crucial to treat them with caution, and—I can't stress this enough— DO NOT pop them. Remember, blisters form to protect your wounds from infection.

"Clean the area with a fragrance-free soap and water," says Dr. Jaliman. "Then, apply an antibiotic ointment on them like polysporin or bacitracin so the area doesn’t get infected. Finally, use a non-stick bandage to cover the area."

8. Use sunscreen

Just because you already have a sunburn doesn't mean it can't get worse from further exposure. ICYDK, you should be applying sunscreen every day (yes, even in the winter and even when you're indoors). If you tend to forget, try to integrate sunscreen into your skincare routine or carry a travel-sized one in your bag.

As your sunburn heals, the sunscreen you use will also play a role in how your skin looks afterward. "It’s important to wear a broad spectrum sunscreen SPF 30 or above with a high concentration of zinc oxide so that the pigment will blend back and even out," says Dr. Jaliman.

9. Opt for fragrance-free soaps

Similar to aloe vera, soaps that contain strong fragrances may lead to allergic reactions or further irritations to your burn. Using a soap that's fragrance-free will ultimately lower your chances of making things worse. Speaking of showering, it's best practice to use a gentle washcloth instead of a loofah.

10. Wear protective layers

Wearing light but protective clothing can drastically help with avoiding sun exposure. In other words, grab your favorite hat, long summer skirt, or loose long-sleeve top to give your skin a much-needed break from the sun.

11. Speak with your doctor.

At the end of the day, you know your body best. But there are still a few warning signs that indicate it's time to see your doctor including;

  • If you have a fever above 101 degrees

  • If you're severely dehydrated or confused

  • If you experience vomiting

  • If you have blisters on your face or genitalia

  • If you notice severe swelling or pus

  • If 20 percent or more of your body has blisters

Upon seeing your doctor, you may be prescribed antibiotics or steroids by mouth. In the event that you have to go to the hospital, you may need to be placed on an IV, says Dr. Jaliman.

Will tanning help me avoid sunburn?

Tanning to avoid a sunburn is a common myth that gets a lot of hype. "There's no such thing as tanning being good for you in any context to prevent you from burning," says Dr. Gohara.

So while you definitely should have fun at your next beach day, remember that taking preventative measures is key to healthy skin in the long run.

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