You looked forward to your tropical beach vacation for months. You endured travel stress made worse by the pandemic. When you finally arrived, you headed straight to the beach to relax in the sun. You enjoyed every minute of it and thought you’d followed all the right sun protection tips, but the facts face you in your hotel room mirror later that day: You’ve got a sunburn.
As frustrating and even embarrassing as they might be, sunburns happen. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 1 out of every 3 Americans reports getting sunburned each year.
The good news? It’s simple to learn how to treat your sunburn and keep it from ruining the rest of your vacation.
How Does a Sunburn Happen?
A sunburn is an inflammatory reaction to ultraviolet (UV) radiation damage in the skin’s outermost layers, explains the Skin Cancer Foundation. It happens when your skin gets too much UV radiation without proper protection from sunscreen and clothes, adds the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
You probably already know that the best way to keep your skin youthful and healthy is to stay out of the sun during its peak hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and to use sunscreen and protective clothing when you do venture out, as recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation. So how come you’re feeling the burn?
The most common reasons patients get sunburn are that they forgot to reapply sunscreen or they wait too long to reapply it, says Allison Arthur, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Sand Lake Dermatology Center in Orlando, Florida. “Sunscreen is supposed to be applied at least every two hours, or sooner if swimming or sweating heavily,” says Dr. Arthur. Check your sunscreen label carefully, as sunscreen efficacy can range from 40 to 80 minutes under those circumstances. And don’t forget your ears and the tops of your feet — two areas Arthur says people frequently neglect.
Another possible reason you’ve gotten an unexpected sunburn: You underestimated how powerful the sun’s rays really are.
People on a tropical beach vacation have an increased risk of getting a sunburn because those destinations tend to be closer to the equator, where the sun’s rays are the strongest.
A trip to the beach can also increase your risk of summertime sunburn because both sand and water reflect the sun back at you, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, increasing your UV load. (That’s why you’re also at risk of a sunburn when vacationing in snowy destinations — snow is reflective, too.)
Finally, an overcast sky doesn’t mean you won’t get burned. Arthur says she often sees the worst sunburns after a cloudy day: “People don’t see the sun, and they forget that they need protection from the UV rays penetrating through the clouds.”
How to Treat a Sunburn at Home
A sunburn can develop in a matter of minutes, but it can take several hours to appear, says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with MDCS Dermatology in New York City: “It can often peak 24 to 48 hours after sun exposure and then will subside, taking days to weeks to fully recover.”
Unfortunately there are no shortcuts to healing a sunburn, but knowing how to treat it will minimize your discomfort, and reacting quickly will get your vacation back on track.
How to Ease a Sunburn and Promote Healing
Try these sunburn treatments to relieve your pain and feel more comfortable:
1. Get Out of the Sun
The AAD says the first step in treating your sunburn is getting out of the sun (and preferably moving indoors to air-conditioning). Be sure to completely cover the burn with lightweight protective clothing or a hat whenever you step outside, and seek shade often until your sunburn is completely healed.
2. Cool Down With a Shower or Cold Compress
If the pain and heat of your sunburn are making you uncomfortable, taking a quick cool shower or bath or applying cool compresses (like a wet towel) to the affected areas may provide some relief, per the AAD. After a brief rinse, gently pat yourself dry, deliberately leaving your skin slightly damp. (Keep in mind that while you can use ice in a cold compress, you should avoid applying it directly to sunburned skin, per the Skin Cancer Foundation.)
3. Keep Your Skin Moisturized
Slather on aloe vera gel to soothe your parched skin and help relieve some of your sunburn symptoms, advises the AAD. Your skin is more susceptible to potential irritants right now, so stick to bland, fragrance-free, chemical-free balms, and look out for neomycin (a common allergen that’s found in Neosporin), warns Arthur: “When people are allergic to these ingredients and apply them to burned skin, it can trigger more inflammation, blisters, itching, or discomfort.” Avoid “-caine” products, such as benzocaine, which can also trigger an allergic reaction and irritation, notes the AAD.
4. Use Pain Relievers to Reduce Inflammation
Take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), if needed for pain. “By reducing inflammation, pain relievers can help to reduce swelling and redness associated with a sunburn,” explains Dr. Garshick.
5. Take Extra Care to Stay Hydrated
When you are in the sun for long periods of time, it is easy to become overheated and dehydrated — plus, as the AAD notes, a sunburn will pull fluid in your body toward the surface of the skin, putting you at a higher risk of dehydration. To counter this risk, drink plenty of water and other nonalcoholic fluids to help keep you hydrated. (This Hydration Calculator can provide an estimate of how much water to drink based on individual factors like age, sex, and activity level.)