Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Jul

7 Home Remedies to Relieve a Sunburn

sunburnedlegsPeople who like to say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure are smug jerks, especially when it comes to sunburns. While they were eating spoonfuls of tomato paste, canned flamingo, and fish oil, nibbling on grape seeds, using portable vitamin D test kits, and smearing green tea all over their bodies, sure, they didn’t get burned, but were they really living? Because you sure were. You were out there in the sun, just basking in it, arms outstretched to accept its vibrant rays like it was a commercial for a venereal disease medication. You may have gotten a little baked, a little too much color, but it was well worth it… right?

Well, now you’ve gotta deal with this sunburn business. It’s red, it hurts, it’s veritably unhealthy, and you’re about to start peeling. What do you do? How can you soothe the flaming epidermis? How can you halt, or perhaps even reverse the damage before it gets out of hand?

Recent research has apparently found the culprit responsible for a sunburn’s pain: an inflammatory molecule called CXCL5. CXCL5 is a chemokine, a protein that recruits inflammatory immune cells to damaged tissue. In sunburned tissue, researchers found that CXCL5 was present in large quantities. Later, they found that as sunburned rats healed, an antibody began specifically targeting and reducing CXCL5 levels. This reduced pain. As of now, there exists no known home remedy (or pharmaceutical remedy) for triggering CXCL5 antibodies – if that’s even something we want to mess around with, since pain exists for a reason – but there are many home remedies for dealing with the pain.

Yes, home remedies for sunburns are plentiful, but few have anything to back them up but hearsay and anecdote. Anecdote can be incredibly useful (I’ve included some of the more interesting ones below), but let’s also take a look to see which remedies, if any, have supporting evidence.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is the classic remedy. You get a bad sunburn and almost anyone’s initial response is “Apply some aloe.” Is this advice warranted? Well, the actual aloe vera plant has over two millennia of history as a medicine across many traditional cultures spanning multiple regions, including China, India, Latin America, Japan, Russia, and Africa. Modern research has confirmed its effects on blood lipids, glucose tolerance, wound healing (has been shown to slow and speed up healing rates in different studies), and first- and second-degree burn recovery, but, strangely enough, not on sunburn. It neither prevents nor heals sunburns. That said, it does appear to soothe the pain associated with sunburns, so go ahead and apply away.

Kukui Nut Oil

The kukui tree was introduced to the Hawaiian islands roughly 1,500 years ago by early Polynesian explorers. It was henceforth and hitherto employed by the islands’ inhabitants in both medical and nonmedical arenas, in particular the oil from the kukui nut. Kukui nut oil was used as fuel, as a laxative, as a topical joint pain and arthritis reliever, and, most famously, as a reliever of skin conditions – including sunburn. The oil’s efficacy has never been “proven,” but I think 1,500 years of steady use (PDF) by a sunbaked population with extensive sunburn experience elevates kukui nut oil bey0nd mere anecdote.

Topical Vitamin E

Another popular remedy is to break open capsules of vitamin E and rub it into the affected area of the skin. Does it work? Perhaps so. One study on hairless mice exposed to UVB found that applying a common vitamin E supplement (tocopherol acetate) to the skin immediately after exposure lessened the sun damage. Even applying the vitamin E eight hours after exposure helped, but the effect was reduced the longer they waited.

Topical Black Tea

Last week, I mentioned how the polyphenols in tea leaves can improve your skin’s resistance to UV radiation when they’re ingested, but it appears that topical tea application can soothe and perhaps speed up the healing of sunburns. For a detailed tutorial on how to do it, check out this great article on Instructables (complete with detailed pictures). I’ve also heard good things about sharing a cool bath with several tea bags, and I’ve got a friend who saves all her used tea bags for topical application during the summer months. She’ll soak them for ten seconds in cool water, and then just slap them on to the burn.

Milk

You don’t have to be a lacto-paleo to embrace the topical benefits of dairy, according to one dermatologist. She recommends applying cool (“not cold”) milk to your sunburns, using gauze or clean cloth, and claims that “the milk will create a protein film that helps ease the discomfort.” I would imagine grass-fed, raw milk from Jersey cows with A2 casein would work best (I never saw a sunburnt Masai!), but it probably isn’t required.

Vinegar

One part vinegar to one part water, mixed together in a spray bottle and applied directly to the sunburn is supposed to be an effective sunburn relief treatment. A few glugs added to a cool bath is another common one. Unfortunately, I could find no supporting research for this one, but it appeared on enough “sunburn home remedy” lists that I figured there may be something to it. Anyone try it out themselves?

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil can seemingly do it all. Numerous readers use it as sunblock, and just as many use it to soothe already established burns. I recall Bear Grylls smearing smashed coconut all over his face and arms to prevent and soothe sunburn during an episode of Man v. Wild, so perhaps there’s something to it.

I wish there were more definitive answers for this one, but I fear that smug “an ounce of prevention” jerk may be right this time.

What are your tried and true home remedies for a bad sunburn? I’m consistently impressed with the advice and insights you guys dole out in the comment section and in emails, so let’s hear what you’ve got. What works? What doesn’t? Let me know, and thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I have always used Aloe Vera!!! Put it on to sooth the pain and it seems like the next morning the sunburn is already reduced in redness and pain!! I swear by it!

    Now I spend more time getting my sun rays in, eating right and spending time in the shade to prevent said sunburn!! Pasty white girl here….sunburns come easy and they suck!! :)

    The Real Food Mama wrote on July 26th, 2011
  2. I did a controlled test with Aloe vs cocoa butter cream vs nothing in an equally burned spot on my skin. I reapplied the aloe fresh off the plant and the cream twice a day. There was no difference in pain, or healing time with any of the three areas.

    I don’t think there is anything that will do the trick and I think Hawaiians probably have a little more built-in protection than my Irish French German ancestry in any case.

    Johnc wrote on July 26th, 2011
    • Ive heard that aloe juice straight from the plant can be a little too caustic for our skin. Have you had any problems with it vs processed aloe extract?

      cTo wrote on July 26th, 2011
      • caustic? you know that you can eat aloe right?

        Giftty wrote on July 27th, 2011
        • Vinegar is caustic too. But weakly.

          Jonathan wrote on July 22nd, 2012
        • This is a general comment in the thread–the reply link doesn’t show up for me to comment last.

          Google says that aloe’s pH is 4-6. The general consensus is that it’s “alkaline forming”, encouraging acid neutralization when ingested. I assume it’s a side-effect of being more basic than stomach acid (but still an acid; corrosive, but not caustic).

          Topically, aloe’s pH is weakly acidic (like vinegar, or acetic acid), not alakai (like lye, or caustic soda). Also all over the web, weak acids are used to some benefit for various skin conditions.

          Malachai wrote on September 8th, 2012
      • Every time Ive put aloe Vera from the plant on my skin, especially my face, it burns and I get a rash where I applied it. I could just be allergic to it though.

        It was applied without having a sunburn too!

        Nicole wrote on July 23rd, 2012
  3. I always use vinegar. I grew up in Florida and with the nickname “fish-belly” I got burned a lot when I was younger. I actually pour it directly onto the skin and let it dry. I’ve found that it soothes the burn and it tends not to blister.

    Sandy wrote on July 26th, 2011
  4. When I was a kid the first thing my mom did when I burned (which was fairly frequent) was wash it with vinegar and, once that dried apply aloe vera. Seemed to work well enough. I don’t burn as much as I used to and now they tend to be so minor that I just bear with it.

    Seth wrote on July 26th, 2011
  5. What about healing from within? The foods we eat play a big part in pain management and inflammation. Granted, if your skin is white and you lay out in the sun for hours (which I just did at Lake Powell) you’re going to burn, at least somewhat, no matter what you eat, but the misery of it can be mitigated by diet. I got pretty red last week, even peeled, but it never hurt much at all.

    Peggy The Primal Parent wrote on July 26th, 2011
    • Agreed!!!

      The Real Food Mama wrote on July 26th, 2011
    • Absolutely , everyhting is connected. the better-fresh produce fruits and veg we eat the stronger is our immune system faster we heal .perhaps even can prevent the sun damage in some cases

      Julie wrote on May 8th, 2013
  6. I tanned for years in a tanning bed (I know – big no no) on a daily basis, 20 minutes a day. I used pure coconut oil instead of that chemical junk they sell you. The result was beautiful skin. I am 39 and noone ever guesses my age. Typically people think I’m in my early thirties and often my twenties. Also, my natural skin is very fair and it takes a while to get my skin worked up to a tan.

    Hannah wrote on July 26th, 2011
    • Do you put the oil on before or after tanning/going out in the sun?

      Vivian wrote on July 26th, 2011
  7. I can attest to vinegar working! Many moons ago, it was a 105 F and I decided to go to the beach and apply sunscreen that wasn’t waterproof. I was young and stupid. I received a nice second degree burn from Mother Nature for my ignorance. I couldn’t sleep at all – the pain was pretty intense. My aunt told me about the vinegar and it helped me get through the hurdle of pain. I was shocked. My nose suffered more in the long run. :)

    Danielle wrote on July 26th, 2011
  8. I’ve used the vinegar method for years. I don’t bother to dilute it, though, unless I’m low in vinegar. The relief is amazing, as long as you don’t mind smelling like a chip truck. ^_~

    Aloe vera fresh from the plant is a close second, but I find it tends to go sticky and get tight and dry feeling after a while, which irritates the already sore skin. A fresh application (or a damp washcloth) easily fixes that, but it’s something to consider.

    Omnomnivore wrote on July 26th, 2011
  9. I’ve used a cream called ‘Calendula Plus’ from The Vitamin Shoppe for my sunburns. It stops the pain right away, at least on burns that are not too severe. I am also one of those “an ounce of prevention is a pound of cure” type person, but I rarely use sunscreen. I’ll wear a hat, or drap a scraf around my neck so my chest doesn’t burn. I am in my upper 30s and have been told I have beautiful skin. Makes me feel good!

    Kim wrote on July 26th, 2011
  10. This post came at the right time for me..I just got sunburnt this past Sunday…fooled by the cloudy skies and rain. I was so mad because I had been building up a light tan for the past month or so, so I thought I could handle some more time out in the sun a few hours past noon, but when I got home I was red! I was only outside for about an hour or so, but that was enough to make me look like a lobster.

    I took a lukewarm/cool shower and pat-dried my skin to keep it hydrated when I got home, then applied aloe vera-based lotion on the burnt areas. I also drank about 5 cups of white tea and went mountain biking before the shower…don’t know if it will help, but it made me feel better that I had some antioxidants in me and I had sweated a little…just a mental thing to make me feel like this would counter the sun damage.

    I took 2 ibprophen last night to help reduce the inflammation because I was still a little sore yesterday.

    Today the redness is much less, and I actually look kind of tan. This is the fastest I have lost my red color after a burn…don’t know if it is because of living primally, but I like to think so.

    I’m going to start eating more tomato sauce though after reading your earlier post. I like cooked tomatoes way better than raw ones :-)

    primalpal wrote on July 26th, 2011
  11. I haven’t had an actual sunburn in years, but my skin seems to feel the ill-effects of sun exposure without actually looking red or burned. It’s never occurred to me to try a natural remedy since I don’t seem technically sunburned–but if it hurts, obviously I’ve done some damage!

    Next time this happens, I’m all over the coconut oil remedy.

    Anne wrote on July 26th, 2011
  12. I’ve found a little bit of witch hazel extract on those areas that are lightly overexposed helps mitigate a burn. If I go outside for a little while and forget to put on sunscreen, my skin feels a little warm and a burn is likely to form but the witch hazel seems to keep a burn from developing.

    Nick wrote on July 26th, 2011
  13. Mark, you would watch Man vs Wild. :)

    Vivian wrote on July 26th, 2011
  14. Love the aloe vera. We find that while it doesn’t help heal, it definitely helps cool and soothe it away.

    I’ll have to try the vinegar – that’s a new one for me.

    And milk just seems like you’re gonna end up smelling a little bit funky at the end of the day…

    Hal wrote on July 26th, 2011
  15. An antihistamine like Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)can help with the itching and pain while ibuprofen can help with the pain and itching.

    Richard A. wrote on July 26th, 2011
  16. I swear by vitamin E oil for a speedy recovery from a sunburn. I have used it since I was a pup.

    Randy wrote on July 26th, 2011
  17. I don’t burn badly…I think part of it is genetic since I’m half Spanish and part of it is dietary.

    I’ve noticed that when I’m eating plenty of fatty meats and lots of coconut oil my skin is a lot more resilient and even when I do burn it goes away in a day or two.

    Sterling wrote on July 26th, 2011
  18. Similar to the milk suggestion, I’ve heard that ice cream, slightly mushy, can help a bad burn.

    There is an essential oil called helichrysum italicum, which I purchased online years ago. It is supposed to help cure burns. I bought it for my mom, who was going through radiation treatment at the time, and we found that a couple of drops, mixed with avocado oil, was very soothing when dabbed on her irritated, red skin with a cotton ball. I’ve used it for sunburns and regular burns since, and I find it helpful. It smells like overripe apples, but I don’t mind. The scent dissipates.

    Kate M. wrote on July 26th, 2011
  19. Vinegar works for me. After using a spray sunscreen and not bothering to rub it in (I didn’t realize that was needed with the sprays, but apparently it is!), I was so sunburned I was swollen…my ankles were so huge that my socks were cutting of circulation to my feet.

    After wobbling around with lotion and aloe “gel” offering little to no relief, I filled a spray bottle with white vinegar (I skipped the water) and sprayed it all over. The effects were immediate: it was as if the vinegar pulled the sting right out of my skin! Even after drying, I felt relief. I didn’t mind the smell. Vinegar is, oddly enough, one of my favorite smells, lol…

    Ali wrote on July 26th, 2011
  20. I use high quality Lavender essential oil topically to help heal all types of burns, including sunburn.

    Pam wrote on July 26th, 2011
  21. Last time I got too much sun, I took a cool shower then put on a mixture of (melted) coconut oil & aloe. repeated applications. Straight aloe gel always dries weird. this mix seemed to work good for me. but I also had a very mild burn.

    peggy wrote on July 26th, 2011
  22. I have used topical Vit C serums with great success on areas that I could “feel” were going to become very red in a few hours. The key is to apply it right away and not wait. DermaE’s Ester-C serum is what I use.
    I have never tried the coconut oil topically. I eat some every day, though. I will have to try it topically someday.

    Susan wrote on July 26th, 2011
  23. rosewater and vinegar mix works wonders! i’m a pale pale pale redhead and i’ve tried pretty much all of these…tea baths, aloe and yogurt are also good ones.

    rachael wrote on July 26th, 2011
  24. I was the sunburn queen growing up (as my sister likes to call me still) being that I’m a lot of Irish and grew up at the beach. I’ve learned a few tricks over the years. Avoid showering as long as possible. Apparently the natural oils of your skin help heal the burn (or so I’ve heard). Then when you do shower, make it as warm as tolerable. And even though it’s not a home remedy, I swear by Banana Boat’s After Sun lotion. It’s loaded with aloe and vitamin E. I slather that on until I’m white and just wait for it to soak in before I get dressed. Doesn’t always soothe the pain right away but helps remove the burn while maintaining some color and preventing peeling down the road.

    I’m thinking I may have to try this coconut oil trick though. My CrossFit trainer uses coconut oil to moisturize her skin and she looks amazing at 34 years old.

    Katie wrote on July 26th, 2011
  25. My grandmother always used to lay thinly sliced tomatoes over sunburn, which really worked well – I guess it’s the same process as vinegar!

    oliviascotland wrote on July 26th, 2011
  26. LIke milk, I always found that greek yogurt is amazing for sunburn. I slather it on my sunburn and let it sit for about 15 minutes then rinse gently with cool water. Bring the sting and redness down a ton.

    Erica wrote on July 26th, 2011
  27. I use Alba kukui body oil as a general after-shower body oil and as a massage oil. It smells nice and always leaves my skin looking great. I definitely recommend it for regular use and I shall have to try it on these pesky burns I got last weekend :P

    cTo wrote on July 26th, 2011
  28. I try to avoid putting to much on my skin. Feeling slimy, regardless of the substance, has always been unsettling to me; however, I find that ensuring I rehydrate and stay hydrated heels my sunburns quicker and helps take away a lot of the pain. I try to knowingly increase hydratio

    Jeremiah wrote on July 26th, 2011
  29. You know how you continue to turn redder even after you get out of the sun? Vinegar stops that dead. We carry a small bottle in the glove compartment of our car for applying whenever we get too much sun. Smells like we are dying Easter eggs but stops the burn so it is worth it. We follow that with Noxema to keep the skin soft and healing. That combination worked for a friend of ours when her vitamin E capsule failed to help. Her skin continued to burn after she applied the vitamin E but stopped burning as soon as she applied the vinegar.

    Linda wrote on July 26th, 2011
  30. Best and most uncomfortable method of keeping a sunburn from getting worse I learned from a RN friend of mine. She said not to use lotion or aloe b/c they trap in the heat and to sit in the tub with ice cold for as long as you can stand it. I was skeptical, but was able to grit my teeth and dipped myself twice and it worked great. I stayed red, but there was no pain following this.

    Adam wrote on July 26th, 2011
    • Makes sense – cooling your skin as fast as possible stops your skin from continuing to cook. Works with soft-boiled eggs, too! ;-)

      Caroline wrote on July 27th, 2011
  31. I find supplements with certain antioxidants are useful in minimizing skin damage from the sun. Specifically, astaxanthin and alpha lipoic acid supplements have been shown to be helpful in this regard.

    doctorsteven wrote on July 26th, 2011
  32. Watermelon rind does wonders for sunburn!

    Jay wrote on July 26th, 2011
  33. I eat coconut oil every day and use it liberally on my skin regularly and especially before and after sun exposure. I also wipe my face and any other frequently exposed areas pretty much every day with green tea bag that has been steeped in enough water just to cover. I live in So Cal and am out in the sun a LOT. I rarely ever use commercial sunscreen. Haven’t had a serious sunburn since I moved out here (almost 3 years ago) and I, too, am generally mistaken for being younger than I am.

    Margaretrc wrote on July 26th, 2011
    • Hi, did use coconut oil on your face also? I was worried about it clogging pores. We are going on a vacation to Mexico and I am deciding on sunscreen options. Are you saving used green tea bags or new ones?

      Shelly wrote on July 28th, 2011
  34. I’m actually new to coconut oil, and I’m loving its multi uses. As sunblock? Amazing. Must try it. Going to start using it as a sometimes leave-in conditioner too, for hair. And for soothing the skin, of course. It’s great in smoothies too! :-)

    Susan Alexander wrote on July 26th, 2011
    • I make shampoo of olive oil soap, baking soda and coconut oil, with a bit of lavender water for texture, scent and darkening (to counter the baking sida which can lighten hair), and my curls LOVE it! My mother has been complemented many times on the shine in her silver hair, which she attributes to CO after showering. I feel a bit like a basted turkey using it on my skin, but I think I just haven’t gotten the dose right :)

      Lauren wrote on July 26th, 2011
  35. I applied yogurt to a pretty fierce sunburn that I managed to get in Hawaii a few years back. I had blisters the side of sand dollars from it, but the yogurt seemed to soothe it. I don’t know if it was the fact that it was cold or if it actually worked, but it saved me a trip to the hospital nonetheless (a doctor saw my burn and suggested I go, but I toughed it out).

    Mira wrote on July 26th, 2011
  36. I recently had a terrible, blistering sunburn. A few hours after my sun exposure, I tried vinegar on the burn and it help one bit. Aloe didn’t soothe my skin either, surprisingly.

    Bethany wrote on July 26th, 2011
  37. The incredibly common wild strawberry plant, brewed as a green tea, has a long history of use externally to soothe and speed the healing of sunburns. It’s also a tasty beverage that seems to work wonders on sore throats, and I haven’t bothered using synthetic antibiotics on wounds since I discovered how effective it is (especially with common plantain) poulticed on any cuts or sores.

    Then again, I am a resident weirdo (who happens to feel great…).

    Erik wrote on July 26th, 2011
  38. I managed to sunburn myself pretty good a couple weeks ago. I had a friend tell me to put baking soda in the bath and soak before going to bed. I had no idea how much baking soda to use or how long to soak but I ran a bath, poured some baking soda in, soaked for about 10 or 15 minutes and viola… the next morning took a hot shower and had no pain, no burning, no nothing. It was a little gritty but I am a believer… baking soda bath is the best sunburn fix ever!!!

    Deanna wrote on July 26th, 2011
  39. Coconut oil wins for me!

    However, since primal con 2011, I have yet to get burned. And, guess what?! I have not put on any sun blocker at all!

    I was even in Orlando, FL for 3 days in June…

    Primal Toad wrote on July 26th, 2011
    • Hi, did use coconut oil on your face also? I was worried about it clogging pores. We are going on a vacation to Mexico and I am deciding on sunscreen options. Your reply would really help. Thanks

      Shelly wrote on July 28th, 2011
  40. Nothing that’s mentioned in the article has worked on me to help ease sunburn.
    That said, since going primal I don’t burn anymore at all. =-P

    Primal Palate wrote on July 26th, 2011

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