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’ve studied aromatherpy an have used good quality 100% pure essential lavender oil on all burns whether sun burn or household burn.

    A few drops in a water atomiser is refreshing.
    Or a few drops on a washcloth draped over body in a cool shower.
    Applied to a good quality carrier oil such as grapeseed (maybe coconut).
    Lavender is one of the few oils you can apply directly to the skin without dilution. Keep a bottle in the kitchen for kitchen burns.
    I swear by it.
    As an aside, I can’t spend more than 20 mins in the sun here in Australia. However I once sat for over 5 hours in full midday sun with no protection in Minneapolis on the hottest day since 1901 and didn’t burn at all. For us in the southern hemisphere sunburn is almost guaranteed. Ive hated sunscreen my whole life. It accelerates my burning and stings upon application. I can’t wait to try coconut oil!!

    Jane wrote on July 26th, 2011
  2. So true! A few drops of lavender essential oil mixed with aloe vera gel that’s been kept in the fridge, AMAZING! cuts sunburn healing down to overnight in some cases, feels cool, smells yummy.

    Zuze wrote on July 26th, 2011
  3. My grandmother used vinegar on our burns. I use it now, and yes, it absolutely soothes for a good long while. The last bad burn I had, I put on vinegar, then Burt’s Bees ResQ, alternating something every 3-4hrs, for two days. It never did the awful peeling in sheets like so many other burns, and was much less painful.

    Now, I’m burning much less often, even with my snow white skin. I’ve been eating high fat, unprocessed, low carb for three years and it’s finally making a difference – much harder to sunburn, and less or no itching and pain with bites, stings, and poison ivy, too!

    MamaGrok wrote on July 26th, 2011
  4. cold shower

    Dasbutch wrote on July 26th, 2011
  5. In the days when used to get sunburn super easy, my method was to first take a bath with green tea (10 bags steeped in boiling water for 10 minutes and then poured into the tub full of water).

    Depending on what I had available, I then would either use alpha-lipoic acid lotion or just honey (let it sit on the skin for 10-15 minutes and wash off).

    I always felt these worked way better than aloe.

    Prevention and diet are the best though, I haven’t had a sunburn in years since I’ve been eating well.

    Doug wrote on July 26th, 2011
  6. You forgot Astaxanthin! A super antioxidant, it also prevents sunburn. :)

    cindy wrote on July 26th, 2011
  7. I hate the aloe vera in the stores. Too many of them have alcohol in them. They make the burn hurt worse in my experience. I have a nice big plant in my backyard and I water it before I pull out the leaf to use.
    WAY better than the junk in the store.
    I’ve got freckles so ya’ll know how bad I burn!

    kaylakala wrote on July 26th, 2011
    • Yes, IMHO the actual plant itself is worth it’s weight in gold. Store bought aloe in a bottle is full of crap and who knows how much actual aloe is really in the stuff? Usually you end up paying for merchandising, packaging, advertising (just cuz they show an aloe plant on the package doesn’t mean there’s any real aloe in it!) and a whole slew of additives.

      I now have 2 aloe plants in pots because I have to bring them inside for the winter – it’s too cold here for them to do well in our colder winter weather (they over-winter in our garage). Whenever I burn myself cooking or doing something stupid with the toaster oven, I grab an aloe “arm” and bathe my boo-boo in the sappy, gooey stuff and it’s like nothing ever happened.

      When I had radiation treatment for breast cancer back in 2002, the radiation department gave us aloe plants to use on the burns the radiation gave us. They also gave us a bunch of medical stuff in tubes and bottles to use to help with the burns, but nothing worked as well as the real aloe plant. I’d keep pieces (“arms or branches”) of the aloe in the fridge, slice it in half the long way, remove any spines (very important!) and place the lengthwise pieces on top of my boob while laying on the couch just vegging out or watching TV — talk about a lifesaver—

      Not sure what the difference is in a sun burn or a radiation burn, but I do know that the real aloe plant was a total life saver for me as well as a LOT of the other gals there. (Sorry, guys, I don’t know what they did for the prostate cancer peeps.)

      I’m thinking after reading all these posts that maybe more than one burn treatment is effective.

      PrimalGrandma wrote on July 26th, 2011
  8. my father chops up limes and rubs them on his burns and lets them sit for 10 minuets or so before washing it off. He swears on it to speed up recovery time, although it does sting.

    Boyd wrote on July 26th, 2011
  9. Raypeat oil (sat/unsat) articles really show how unsat fat can destroy you inside out.
    “Consumption of unsaturated fat has been associated with both skin aging and with the sensitivity of the skin to ultraviolet damage, Ultraviolet light-induced skin cancer seems to be mediated by unsaturated fats and lipid peroxidation.”
    It would bee neat to see if a mixture of gelatin or Glycine could be applied with coconut oil and vitamin D and E and aspirin (if they are transdermal enough). Not sure how reactive those thing are to each other or if vinegar would be an alternative if not included. could add beez wax and maybe make a water proof sunscreen. I use to love the old formula for bull frog when they used bees wax.

    Viva la sat fat solutions.

    Kevin wrote on July 26th, 2011
  10. Being Greek I don’t see olive oil on this list :(, hold the plate smashing celebrations. Greek jokes aside I use olive oil when I burn and find it takes the redness away & leaves me with a nice mediteranian tan :). Live in Australia the sun here is more intense & burns the skin faster than most other parts of the world, in Greece I can sunbake for hours no problems (dreams of sunbaking on a beautiful Greek beach island ahhh). Am wondering if coconut oil is a better option than olive oil (extra virgin of course).

    Sotiri wrote on July 26th, 2011
    • I grew up in sunny South African and have traveled the world, including Australia. I now live in the United Arab Emirates which is desert (summer hits 45 Celsius and higher almost every day.)
      I concur with your comment, the southern hemisphere sun is far more intense than elsewhere. I can go without a shirt for a couple of hours here in the desert, when 20 minutes in South Africa would fry me.

      I use Aloe Vera straight from the plant for cuts, burns and bruises.

      Craig wrote on July 26th, 2011
  11. Mark,

    Nice tips… I could have used some of these a few weeks ago when I got really sunburned!

    Alykhan

    Alykhan wrote on July 26th, 2011
  12. Man I have got to get myself some coconut oil!!! :)

    Mark wrote on July 26th, 2011
  13. I’ve being studying this subject as i run a company that formulates and makes green chemistry. I reading all these science papers etc, and then it occured to me that the skins dead it’s burnt, your not healing it you just need to relieve the pain. So the obvious answer and best solution is Beer or maybe a nice glass of wine.

    kevin wrote on July 26th, 2011
  14. What works for me is to take a warm shower or bath. I don’t know why, but it relieves the pain and cools me down, and I may blister a few days later, but the color stays.

    Go figure!

    Julia wrote on July 27th, 2011
  15. I lived and worked in the Eastern Mediterranean in my late twenties, and picked up quite a few local tips.

    My favourite was a very cold cucumber, straight from the fridge. You simply cut it down the middle and slap the cold sliced edge against the sunburn. It draws out the heat and cools the skin, and something in the cucumber seems to have a slight healing effect.

    That said, the cucumbers out there are rather radically different to ours: the flesh is harder, and they do not have so many seeds.

    Also full fat greek yoghurt works when if it is cool (it also makes a wonderful face mask). I have also heard mashed banana and an infusion of dock leaves works, but have never tried them.

    Alex Grace wrote on July 27th, 2011
  16. The best I have ever used for sunburn and other skin irritations is Chickweed salve. I get mine at http://www.yodercountryhealth.com

    It is made by the Amish in southern Indiana and works like a charm.

    I got a burn while in Lake Havasu CA several years ago. Coming out of the shower I realized I was in trouble. I immediately applied the Chickweed salve and the pain was reduced 95% in less than 5 minutes. My burned skin healed and did not even peal. I am never with out the salve.

    Jim Zook wrote on July 27th, 2011
  17. My husband was having a lot of small skin cancers removed and in an attempt to start with a clean slate, his dematologist prescribed a chemically induced burn/peel on his face last year. It was a ten day regimen, and by about day six he was miserable. His face was peeling and raw, it was painful for him and painful to look at. I had not been using coconut oil, but after doing some reading I figured it was worth a try. I bought the industrial strength stuff they sell at Wal-Mart (we live in a small town, and it was my only readily available source) and he started applying it twice a day. His skin started healing immediately. By day four of the coconut oil, his face had only a slight reddish color. I was sold.

    Barb wrote on July 27th, 2011
  18. I have been using coconut oil for just about everything. Recently had great results on healing some tears on my hands. Worked amazingly! Have not tried it for sunburn, hopefully won’t have to.

    Thrive Lancaster wrote on July 27th, 2011
  19. I have used vinegar successfully. A key is to reapply every 30 minuets.

    Steve wrote on July 27th, 2011
  20. I suspect not much can be done other than pain relief.

    It seems to me that expecting a lotion to relieve sunburn is about as logical as expecting a lotion to turn a cooked chicken back into a raw one.

    Rory Mulhern wrote on July 27th, 2011
  21. Vinegar and water do indeed work as a remedy. Using the 1:1 mixture in cold water and laying towels soaked in the mixture across the burned area will provide relief in short order.

    Jason wrote on July 27th, 2011
  22. Arnica Gel (arnica montana) works wonders for sunburn. It draws the redness away from the skin, reduces swelling and pain. Also, I use coconut oil, exclusively the LivPurely brand after a day at the beach to keep my skin and hair hydrated and soft.

    Jennifer wrote on July 27th, 2011
  23. I would like to add something I didn’t see, but it’s loosely based on the vinegar idea. I had a co-worker who suffered a bad burn much worse than a sun-burn. He applied mustard to the area, which of course contains vinegar. The thicker base of the mustard stuck to the wounded area, kept the skin cooler and did the trick.
    If you don’t mind smelling like a corn dog, this could be your solution.

    Jeff wrote on July 27th, 2011
  24. Very surprised to not see Tea Tree Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) on the list. It has been used by Aboriginal Australians for 10,000+ years for all sorts of skin aliments and cuts.

    It is incredible on sunburn. After stupidly suffering 2nd degree sunburn, tea tree healed my skin quickly. I have been using it since 1996.

    Max wrote on July 27th, 2011
  25. I have a bad history of sunburn. Thankfully, as I’ve gotten older it’s gotten better (as have the sunblocks.) I know this isn’t a home remedy, but the only thing that really works for me is lidocaine. I buy the aloe vera gel w/ lidocaine in it (I think solacaine is one brand) and I apply it frequently.

    Heidi wrote on July 27th, 2011
  26. With deepest respect dudes, the problem isn’t the sunburn. The problem is the damaging UVA rays that are slowly turning you to leather. Without a way to block those, the short-term small sunburn is the least of your issues. UVA alters DNA and destroys collagen. A few studies suggest it harms your immune system as well. I wear sunscreen primarily so I don’t look like an old couch by age 45. I have no desire to be primal but with waggling jowls around my collarbones. :) Unless you consider UVA, this discussion is seriously incomplete. Best wishes to you all!

    greensleeves wrote on July 27th, 2011
  27. Long story short. We had heated a draw bar for a plow to a white color. It was down to a bright red when the person welding had removed his gloves and was trying to get out from between the bars. He reached over too far and you could hear the almost white hot steel squeal on the entirety of the inside of his hand along with a huge puff of smoke. Things happened quickly after that and the huge aloe plant in the shop immediately had a very large, thick leaf split and put on that hand in just seconds after the injury. Instead of a third degree burn that looked and felt like one and took weeks to heal, the hand was much better the next day and actually had no large blistering, something that would always happen in those circumstances. This has happened since to various people and it never fails to do unbelievable wonders for the burn. The leaf was very large and thick and wrapping it so the liquid stayed on it all night seemed to help more than anything I ever witnessed. Needless to say nearly everyone I know who has a steel working shop has a large aloe plant. It always works. I had a 3rd degree burn from my furnace exploding in my face and only had an aloe product in a pump jar. While it helped with the pain, I still had the hide on my face blacken and bleed a day later. Nothing but the real plant works as well as anything, and I’ve tried them all. If you have a large plant, keep the other half of the leaf you don’t use in a ziploc and change to that side after 3-4 hours. Do this regularly and a burn will be so much less you won’t ever be caught without fresh aloe again like I did last winter after my life had left our big aloe plant on the breezeway one night during low 20′s temp that killed it. No other thing listed has worked for me as well as aloe although vit. E is also a good runner up.

    Brent wrote on July 27th, 2011
  28. I’m curious, once you do get sun-burned, is that damage permanent? What I mean is, if you get sunburned multiple times over your lifetime does the damage accumulate?

    TokyoJarrett wrote on July 27th, 2011
  29. I have read that taking aspirin before the sunburn sets in can short-circuit the inflammatory response.

    I have since tried this on several occasions and it does seem to prevent it from progressing.

    Clint wrote on July 28th, 2011
  30. applying yoghurt instead of milk is easier and it really helps a great deal. used it this summer and u could quickly see improvements.

    alex wrote on July 28th, 2011
  31. I use olive oil, which I also use daily on my face and body. For mild burns I put it on before I go to bed and the next day the redness is gone. For lobster-red burns I put it on at least twice a day. I have not peeled at all since using olive oil.

    Adrienne wrote on July 28th, 2011
  32. In Arkansas we have a common weed called plantain. An old herb book said that boiling the leaves of the plantain, then soaking a soft cloth in the cooled liquid and applying it to the burn reduces the pain and redness. Seems like a lot of work, but it was the only option to me one summer when I got really red, and it really worked! After that I made extra and kept it in the fridge.

    Lolo wrote on July 28th, 2011
  33. Coconut oil all the way – before, during & after sunning!
    Combine with aloe vera for burns.

    Avi K wrote on July 29th, 2011
  34. I got burned last year just 24 hours before I had a romantic weekend planned with my girlfriend! How wonderful right! She suggested the hottest shower or bath I could stand!! I thought that was nuts, but I gave it a try. I filled the tub with VERY hot water. I slowly….. got in. It was soooo frekin painful!!!! The pain stopped after 5 mins or so. I stayed in it for a few hours. The next day I had no pain!!! Nice!! I did add a tsp of tea tree oil just because it was by the tub. Not sure which help the best but it worked for me!

    Matt wrote on July 29th, 2011
  35. I second the Arnica gel. It may not speed the healing up too much but it absolutely reduces pain and some redness as it is considered an analgesic. It’s also amazing for bruises, muscle pain, prevents calcification in hematomas, and even helped me to significantly reduce healing time a stress fracture.

    CrushinD wrote on July 31st, 2011
  36. Another vote for vinegar. My English mum always told me to spray a sunburn with vinegar to make the redness disappear faster. I don’t burn often, but if I do I marinate myself in vinegar, and feel much better – cools my skin, and I don’t seem to peel.

    Tracy wrote on August 20th, 2011
  37. I used coconut oil as a sunblock once…never again. I’ve read countless books and websites promoting it, but all it took for me was a day at the beach to discover that oil of any kind burns your skin! My body was literally cooking in the hot sun! Worst burn I ever had. Ironically, I used coconut oil to heal the burn and I didn’t peel!

    Brenda wrote on August 24th, 2011
  38. I tried all these remedies: the raw aloe Vera plant, aloe Vera spray tea, warm bath and then tea bath and also the milk ( which makes you smell sort of moldy) and then I tried the vinegar and it was amazing, my skin still burned a bit but was much much less!!! Amazing

    Tikiee wrote on January 14th, 2012
  39. Vinegar!!! Grew up in the FL sun, Mom always gave us vinegar baths when we stayed out too long. It always took the sting out immediately and we slept well the entire night and still felt good in the morning to go out and play again!

    Rhonda Perry wrote on March 18th, 2012
  40. My tried and true sunburn relief method is internal, not external. I drink some liquid chlorophyll mixed with water. Depending on the severity of the burn, you can drink a little (? maybe a teaspoon? of chlorophyll in about 6 ounces of water?) every couple of hours or just a few times a day. I am lazy and have only done it a straight 2 days in a row, so I don’t know if there is a reason to take it for longer or not. But it has never failed to relieve my skin, and my kids’ as well.

    Cecelia wrote on May 4th, 2012

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