A sunburn is the result of your skin getting too much exposure to damaging ultraviolet rays — especially the dangerous UVB rays from the sun, Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, tells Allure. “Sunburns may seem temporary but can cause long-lasting damage to the skin by significantly increasing the risk of skin cancers, wrinkles, and sun spots,” she says.
Since sunburns are relatively commonplace, it’s easy to think getting scorched isn’t really that bad. But research shows that even one bad burn has a significant impact on your risk for developing skin cancer.
“Having five blistering sunburns can increase your risk of developing melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 80 percent,” says Marchbein.
In a perfect world, you’d be so slathered in SPF you’d prevent 100 percent of sunburns (and even tans), Marchbein says. But since sun happens, here’s how to treat a sunburn if you get one.
When you get a sunburn, UV light causes inflammation in the skin similar to what you might get from a thermal burn from the oven,” Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital and a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
“That’s why it’s important to hydrate the skin and help repair the skin barrier as quickly as possible,” he says. The easiest way to do that is from the outside-in. For the most skin-soothing effects, look for a moisturizer containing aloe, which helps calm burned skin. Zeichner recommends Vaseline Intensive Care Aloe Soothe Lotion.
Hydrating from the inside-out can also help treat a sunburn. “A sunburn draws fluids to the skin’s surface away from the rest of the body,” Marchbein explains. To compensate, drink plenty of H2O.
2. Decrease swelling
You can also treat a sunburn by reducing inflammation from the inside-out, Zeichner explains. Popping an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pill (like Advil), can help reduce swelling and redness, plus help you deal with any pain.
3. Protect any blisters
If your burn blisters (which makes it a second-degree burn) it’s important to keep any blisters from popping. “Leave them intact and do not rupture or peel them,” Marchbein cautions.
Not only will the burn heal more quickly, it will also lower your risk of getting any infections. “If the burn is severe, see a board-certified dermatologist,” Marchbein adds. “Prescription steroid creams can sometimes be used to help speed healing.”
4. Fight lasting free-radical damage
While a burn will heal within a few days, the free-radical damage done by UV rays is forever. “UV light promotes the production of free radicals, which harm collagen and elastin, as well as damage the DNA of your skin cells,” Zeichner says. This damage is what causes early aging effects and ups your risk of skin cancer, he explains.
Applying a vitamin C serum can help. “You can’t undo your exposure, but antioxidants can help minimize the harmful effects,” Zeichner says.
5. Prevent further sun damage
The best treatment is prevention, Marchbein says. While your sunburned skin is healing, it’s extra important to protect it from further sun exposure. Stay in the shade, wear SPF-protective clothing, and of course, wear your sunscreen.
“Most people do not apply enough sunscreen to get the listed SPF,” Marchbein says. She recommends using a shot glass-sized portion of at least SPF 30 and reapplying every two hours. Whether you prefer neon, glitter, or a good old-fashioned sunscreen formula, don’t leave the house without your SPF.
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