Dear Doctors: What is the best thing to do to treat a sunburn? Our grandmother always gets ice and rubs it on the burn, but that doesn’t seem to make it go away.
Answer: Your grandmother’s use of ice cubes might feel soothing, but that won’t cure a sunburn. Unfortunately, nothing will.
Once you’re burned, the damage is done. All you can do is take steps to ease the discomfort and prevent future burning.
It’s important to understand that sunburn is a skin injury. It occurs when melanin, a natural pigment that protects against the ultraviolet light in the sun’s rays, becomes overwhelmed due to overexposure. The resulting damage to the skin leads to inflammation as the body’s healing mechanisms race to the rescue.
The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., but the hours before and after also require vigilance from the two types of ultraviolet radiation associated with skin cancers, known as UVB and UVA. Sunlight can harm skin even through a window. UVB rays don’t pass through glass, so you won’t burn, but UVA rays can still reach you and damage the deeper layers of your skin.
When you realize you’ve gotten sunburned, get out of the sun immediately. Sunburned skin is hot to the touch, so a cool — but not cold — bath or shower can bring relief.
Treat sunburned areas gently. Blot and pat the skin with a soft towel. Apply lotion while skin is still damp, which will help create a barrier to preserve moisture.
Consider using aloe vera. It contains aloin, a compound that relieves inflammation.
Over-the-counter cortisol creams can ease pain and discomfort. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin also can help ease pain and inflammation.
If your skin blisters, that indicates a second-degree burn. Do not interfere with the blisters. Let them subside and heal naturally. Popping blisters or removing peeling skin can lead to infection.
Moisturize often, as the sunburn has damaged the skin and left it dry and fragile, and drink plenty of water.
Sun damage is cumulative, which means the risks you take last a lifetime. So wear sunscreen, and cover up with long sleeves, sunglasses and head gear. Don’t forget about the tops of your ears, the back of your neck and the tops of your feet.
Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko are internists who teach at UCLA Health.