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How to treat sunburn naturally

Fact Checked

sun exposure

Story at-a-glance -

  • Safe sun exposure can do wonders for your health, but is therapeutic only when it's done in appropriate and measured timeframes
  • Too much sun exposure provides no benefit and can result in sunburn, which is an inflammatory response of your body from overexposing your skin to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun
  • Instead of taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications or painkillers, which may worsen your condition, use natural remedies to help soothe your sunburn

If you are physically active and usually spend a fair amount of time under the sun without following the guidelines for safe sun exposure, you probably have had a taste of how painful and bothersome a sunburn can be.

Safe sun exposure can do wonders for your health, but it can be therapeutic only when it's done in appropriate and measured timeframes. Too much of it provides no benefit and can result in sunburn, which is an inflammatory response of your body from overexposing your skin to ultraviolet rays from the sun. Although both UVA and UVB can cause tanning and burning, UVB is responsible for directly damaging your DNA.1

However, remember that UVB is what you want to get from healthy sun exposure. When UVB strikes the surface of your skin, your skin converts a cholesterol derivative into vitamin D3.2 Let's discuss this in detail before we delve into the signs, symptoms and natural treatments for sunburn.

Why sun exposure is important

Sunlight allows your skin to produce generous amounts of vitamin D,3 whose receptors have been found in almost every single cell in your body, from your brain to bones, which explains its massive health influence.4 Increasing your vitamin D levels through healthy sun exposure may help:5,6,7

  • Support your cardiovascular health
  • Enhance your muscle strength
  • Optimize blood pressure levels
  • Maintain a healthy immune system
  • Keep bones and teeth strong and healthy
  • Prevent breast cancer

The evidence presented in the April-June 2012 issue of Dermato-Endocrinology also cited other health benefits of sensible sun exposure apart from vitamin D production, which include:8

  • Improving mood and energy levels
  • Regulating melanin production
  • Helping reduce the risk for autoimmune disease
  • Protecting against melanoma and UV damage
  • Suppressing symptoms of multiple sclerosis
  • Relieving pain from fibromyalgia

A study published in the journal Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling also states that when you expose your skin to the sun, it synthesizes high amounts of cholesterol sulfate, which is very important for cardiovascular health.9

However, instead of taking advantage of the sun as a profoundly beneficial, widely available and free health resource from nature, people nowadays avoid sunlight exposure because they believe public health agencies and skincare professionals who tell them they need to avoid sun exposure.

Unfortunately, this erroneous advice can harm you, as evidenced by a 2014 study published in The BMJ, which warns that around 12.8% of U.S. deaths and 9.4% of Europe deaths may be associated with vitamin D deficiency due to inadequate sun exposure.10

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Safe and adequate sun exposure

When it comes to getting adequate vitamin D produced in your skin and steering clear from sunburn, optimal and safe sun exposure is the key. As a general rule of thumb, the more bare skin you expose to sunlight, the more vitamin D you produce.

The occasional exposure of your bare hands or face to the sun is not considered appropriate sunlight exposure. To optimize your levels, you need to expose large portions of your skin to the sun — including your legs, back, arms and chest.

I usually recommend healthy people to get between 15 and 30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure two to four times a week. But if you're not used to basking in the sun for that long, you can slowly increase your tolerance by sunbathing in the spring before gradually prolonging the time of your sun exposure. You should also take into account your skin color, since darker skin produces less vitamin D; hence longer sun exposure is needed.

You can create as much as 20,000 units of vitamin D per day if you have enough of your uncovered skin exposed to the sun.11 Since your body regulates the amount of vitamin D produced through sun exposure, you will not overdose on it. Vitamin D toxicity is often caused by high doses of vitamin D supplements — in the range of 60,000 IUs a day for several months.12

It's important to note that the sun can be either helpful or harmful depending on what type of ultraviolet light you're getting. The ultraviolet light from the sun that affects the skin comes in two main wavelengths:

sun exposure benefits

Ultraviolet A (UVA) — UVA rays are present throughout the day and have a longer wavelength, so they penetrate your skin more deeply.

According to The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, "Multiple low-dose UVA exposures in humans are associated with significant dermal and epidermal histological changes."13

Ultraviolet B (UVB) — Also known as "burn rays," UVB is the healthy wavelength that helps your skin produce vitamin D.14

Ironically, while UVA rays are constantly available all the time — all hours of daylight and throughout the entire year — UVB rays are low in morning and evening, and high at midday or solar noon, making it the most optimal time for vitamin D production.15 There are several factors that may block UVB and in turn hinder the process of vitamin D production in your skin:16,17,18

  • Weather conditions — The fewer clouds, the better, if you want full exposure to UVB rays. Agents like sand, snow and water may also influence UV radiation, and can block or reflect it, depending on conditions. Air pollution, smog and ozone block UVB as well.
  • Latitude and altitude — The closer you are to the equator, the more UV radiation you receive. Being at higher altitudes also allows you to receive more UVB.
  • Season — While spring is the best time to start priming your skin, you should limit exposure during summer to avoid solar radiation. This obviously does not occur in the winter in most of the United States. But the sun's rays are also impeded during a fair amount of the year for people living in temperate climates.
  • Time of day — The optimal time to be in the sun for vitamin D production is as near to solar noon as possible. That would be between roughly 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • Use of sunscreen and clothing — If you're sunbathing for vitamin D, sunscreens are completely unnecessary. A sunscreen with SPF 15 can block about 93% of all incoming UVB rays.19

It's important to note that there are no additional benefits to staying in the sun any longer — this only increases your chances of being sunburned, which is something you definitely want to avoid. The risk of sunburn is higher in people who have a lighter complexion, because they have a lower concentration of melanin in their skin compared to those with darker skin tones.20

Sunburn: Signs and symptoms

The full severity of a sunburn may not be visible within the first few hours of exposure, and may even take a day or two to manifest. If you do get sunburned, some of the first telltale signs of sunburn include:21

  • Redness of the skin or erythema
  • Swelling
  • Skin that's warm or hot to the touch
  • Pain, tenderness and itching
  • Peeling or flaking of the skin
  • Blisters
  • Extreme dryness or wrinkling of the skin

Sunburns are classified into two degrees: first and second. A first-degree sunburn affects the topmost layer of the skin and causes pain and reddening. A second-degree sunburn affects the deeper layers of the skin, causing pain, redness, swelling and blisters. Second degree burns may also take longer to heal.22

How to protect your skin from sunburn

back sunburn protection

It's important to understand that the benefits of sun exposure completely outweigh its risks, which is why totally avoiding the sun is unnecessary and unwise. To continuously enjoy the positive effects of sun exposure without being sunburned, I recommend following these safety tips:

Protect your face and eyes by wearing a wide-brimmed hat or a cap — The skin around these areas is much thinner than other areas of your body and is more at risk for cosmetic photo damage and premature wrinkling, as well as burning.

Moisturize your skin naturally — Before sunbathing, apply organic coconut oil on the exposed areas of your skin. This not only will moisturize your skin to relieve dryness, but also will give you additional metabolic benefits.23

Limit your initial exposure — If you're not yet used to being in the sun, limit your initial exposure to a few minutes and eventually work your way up to 15 to 20 minutes at a time. The more tanned you become, the longer you can stay in the sun — but remember, tanning is actually a signal of skin damage so, again, be sun "smart" and monitor the length of time you spend in the sun so you don't burn.

Build an internal sunscreen with beneficial antioxidants — Astaxanthin is a potent antioxidant that has been found to offer effective protection against sun damage when taken as a daily supplement.24 Other helpful antioxidants include proanthocyanidins,25 resveratrol26 and lycopene.27

The amounts of antioxidants you get from your diet play a major role in how you effectively avoid sunburn. They act as an internal type of sunscreen and allow you to maximize your sun exposure while minimizing the risks. The more antioxidants you have in your skin, the lower your risk of getting burned.28

Dietary sources of effective antioxidants include whole, fresh vegetables and fruits such as goji berries, raspberries and blueberries.29 Be sure to manage your fruit consumption to avoid the dangers of excess fructose.

Vitamins A and C are also important, as your cells use them to regulate both light absorption and protection against sun overexposure,30 so make sure that you have these built-in protections. According to the journal Dermato Endocrinology, good sources of protective vitamins A and C include fresh fruits and vegetables such as citrus fruits, blackcurrant, rose hip, guava, chili pepper or parsley.

Home remedies that may help soothe sunburn

Instead of taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications or painkillers, which may worsen your condition, go natural with these home remedies:31,32,33,34,35

Aloe vera — Several studies have shown that applying aloe vera helps reduce the risk for sunburn and relieve its symptoms.36,37 Ideally, it is best to use the gel from a fresh plant.

When you cut a matured aloe vera leaf open, a thick gel-like juice will come out of it. Use that as a topical ointment to reduce the sting and redness of your sunburned skin. Apply it five times a day until your condition improves.

Potatoes — Potatoes have starch-based compounds that may help soothe sunburn.38 Chop an uncooked potato into slices, and rub or pat down a piece on your sore sunburned spots. You can also try grating a cold raw potato and applying it as a poultice.

Honey — According to a study published in the Annals of Burns and Fire Disasters, honey — particularly Manuka honey — has a number of medicinal properties that make it useful for relieving sunburn. This includes antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, wound-healing and antiexudative properties.39 Just always remember that many commercial honeys you find in your local store may not be true honey; be sure to look for local, organic honey.

Vinegar — The acetic acid found in vinegar is said to reduce pain, itching and inflammation.40 Add a cup of cider vinegar into your bath water and soak your burned skin in it. It can also work like a natural aspirin. Simply dab a bit of white vinegar on your sunburn for 20 minutes for instant pain relief.

Coriander oil — According to a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, coriander leaf extract may help reduce the risk for UVB-induced photoaging. For a soothing effect, use it as an essential oil by lightly rubbing it onto your sunburn.41

Green tea — Green tea's catechin and tannic acid help soothe sunburn pain.42 Soak a couple of tea bags in cool water. You can either use the tea bags themselves as a cold compress on the burnt areas, or wash your face gently with the cold tea extract.

Cucumber — With cucumber's cooling effect, simply putting it on top of your sunburn can provide instant soothing effects. You can also use it as a paste by mashing it and applying it on your skin.43

Calendula — It has natural anti-inflammatory and healing properties that are especially beneficial for burns. Although there are many calendula creams sold in drugstores today, you can make your own calendula poultice using fresh calendula blossoms for faster healing of your sunburn.44

In addition to the natural remedies mentioned above, you should also try the following tips to help ease the symptoms of sunburn:45,46

  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Dip the affected areas into a tub of cold water to lessen the soreness and sting.
  • To avoid further irritation, do not wash your sunburn with harsh soaps.
  • Refrain from putting petroleum jelly on your sunburn, as it may exacerbate the burn by blocking pores.

Can sun exposure cause melanoma skin cancer?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States.47 There are three common types of skin cancer:48,49

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) — This type of skin cancer starts to develop in the basal cell layer of the skin and is usually seen on the face. This is the most common type of skin cancer and is least likely to spread.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) — It affects the squamous cells and typically appears on the face, neck, ears, lips and backs of hands. It's more likely than BCC to grow and spread.

Melanoma — Known as the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma begins in the melanocytes, which are the cells that produce the pigment melanin, responsible for your tan.

Melanoma is most likely to spread to other parts of your body, and causes more deaths than any other type of skin cancer. Redheads have to be particularly careful, as they appear to be genetically predisposed to developing melanoma, regardless of whether or not they spend time in the sun.50

Experts say that the increasing tolls of melanoma skin cancer are due to sun exposure. But a breakthrough study in the British Journal of Dermatology suggests this apparent increase is a result of noncancerous lesions being misclassified as stage 1 melanoma.51

In other words, people are being diagnosed with melanoma even when they have only a minimal, noncancerous lesion, and these diagnoses are significantly skewing cancer statistics. In reality, sensible sun exposure is protective against melanoma because it promotes the production of vitamin D, a potent cancer-fighting nutrient, in response to UVB.52 As written in the Lancet:53

"Paradoxically, outdoor workers have a decreased risk of melanoma compared with indoor workers, suggesting that chronic sunlight exposure can have a protective effect."

Should you really use sunscreens?

sunburn protection

Depending on which one you buy, sunscreens are designed to protect against either one or both UVA and UVB rays. While some don't include UVA protection in them, most sunscreens are used against UVB, which is the main cause of sunburn, cancer and DNA damage.54

Sunscreens are classified according to their level of sun protection factor (SPF):55

  • SPF 15 — Blocks around 93% of UVB radiation
  • SPF 30 — Blocks up to 97% of UVB radiation
  • SPF 50 — Blocks up to 98% of UVB radiation

However, as mentioned, many, if not most, of these SPFs filter out the beneficial UVB, not the cancer-causing UVA.56 In reality, sunscreens could end up doing you more harm than good. By effectively preventing sunburn, which is your body's natural indicator that you've had enough sun exposure, sunscreens create a false sense of security, tempting you to stay longer under the sun unprotected — and thus more susceptible to sunburn and skin cancer.57

Sunscreens are also loaded with synthetic chemicals, which can get into your bloodstream and can cause side effects, including hormone and endocrine disruption.58,59

Safe alternatives to sunscreen

If you have to stay under the sun for an extended period of time, make sure to wear a light layer of cotton clothing, as it provides a SPF of 7.60 You can also opt for natural and safe alternatives that not only will protect against sunburn, but will nourish your skin as well, such as:

  • Sunflower oil61
  • Coconut oil62
  • Sesame oil63
  • Olive oil64
  • Eucalyptus oil65

Stay away from chemically laden sunscreens with these potentially toxic chemicals ingredients identified by the Environmental Working Group:66

  • Octyl methoxycinnamate (OCM)
  • Avobenzone
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxatre
  • Zinc oxide
  • Menthyl anthranilate
  • Mexoryl SX
  • Benzophenone-2
  • Sulisobenzone (Benzophenone-4)
  • Padimate O
  • Nano titanium dioxide

Implementing these simple strategies can help you get a healthy dose of sunshine while you avoid being sunburned. Remember: If you have ever gotten a scorching sunburn even on a cloudy day, it is from the deeply penetrating UVA. Since UVAs are inherently more damaging and consistently high all day, wearing a sunscreen that does not protect you from UVAs will give you virtually no benefit in preventing sunburn or DNA damage.

+ Sources and References