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

People 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 still do what Mum used to do: When sunburned, a cool, 20 minute bath with 4-8 tea bags comforts and soothes. Also makes the burn look less red, since using tea bags in the bath gives you a temporary fake tan.

    Lindsey wrote on May 18th, 2012
  2. This wont help sooth the pain but it will help prevent you from peeling. If you don’t have any of the products mentioned in the article take a hot shower. I’m going to be honest, it kinda hurts but I don’t end up peeling.

    John Oxnard wrote on July 9th, 2012
  3. Green Tea is very healing for the skin. It can speed healing of burns and heal uv damage. You could put make your own green tea bath , or you could buy a pre packaged one somewhere like greenteabaths.com

    logan wrote on July 18th, 2012
  4. My best friend in Tucson, Az. says Barbasol Shaving Cream is the best aid for a sunburn. It worked for me :)

    Tanya wrote on July 22nd, 2012
  5. As far as home remedies go – (i very rarely get burned, as i’m not a sun worshipper – thus even though i’m 55 most think i’m in my late 30s.. just saying). Any ways, for my family: To pull the heat of the burn out we’ve used Baking Soda poultice spread out over the area. When that ‘hardens’, i then spray a light mist of Apple Cider Vinegar over the area. We repeat this procedure and most of the time after an hour or so, no more pain. (you might get a crunchy feeling from the Baking Soda, but it is worth it.)

    Mary wrote on July 23rd, 2012
  6. i had severe sunburn in the face i was in dubai i went 10 min in the hot sun it is severe burn in my face this i was facing a promblem more than 5 to 6 yrs. pls help me any home remedy medicine.

    sunil kumar wrote on February 21st, 2013
  7. Aloe I found generally works well, but I don’t like the smell or feel of it dry on my skin. I always found and, no word of a lie! A hot shower takes away the worst of the burn, not the redness but the heat most bad sunburns generate. My mum always said it “draws out the heat” and that cold showers only provided a temporary relief, but in the end make the burn seem worse. As for those who peel easy? Rub corn flower over it if it itches, it actually soothes the itch! My aunt showed me that one when she got tired of watching me use the walls corner as a back scratcher lol

    Kat wrote on March 13th, 2013
    • WOW, That’s what I do – hot shower – for the occasional burn. I turn the water up gradually, makes me feel like it’s not as painful as cranking up the heat and getting in. Did not know about the corn flower, hopefully won’t have to use it.

      2Rae wrote on August 7th, 2013
  8. I made the mistake last year of trying to get some color early in the season, and basically went from my winter, normally pale white complexion to something more closely resembling a strawberry. It’s a mistake I seem to make frequently. So I started compiling all the remedies that were listed on every sunburn website and came up with a cure that seemed to lessen the amount of time I was hurting and also the severity. Rather than bathe with teabags I put several of them in a bowl with cool water, a small splash of apple cider vinegar and a few crushed up aspirin in the bowl and I had my mix. Then I soaked a large towel in it, wrapped the towel around myself like a cape and belly flopped into a bed covered in towels. The result? A do it yourself home compress that surprisingly helped a great deal. It was easy to apply which meant I was able to apply it more frequently (as opposed to running a bath every time I wanted to try to alleviate my pain) and while the towel was on I was almost pain free, and the pain took much longer to return than with a simple aloe vera treatment. This year I’m glad I have a new remedy, but all the same I think I’ll be sticking with the sunscreen.

    Jess wrote on April 3rd, 2013
  9. I tried the tea bags last night on a 3 day burnt nose (fished with a hat on, didnt think my nose was exposed) wiped my face 3 times thru-out the evening and this morning it is barely even pink. I think I found a new remedy for those rare occassions.

    ellkim1 wrote on May 27th, 2013
  10. Using toothpaste really helps alot…it brings the whole burn out. U will have to leave it on maybe an hour or two, but its worth it in the end;)

    Brittney2712 wrote on May 28th, 2013
  11. I actually got burnt from the uv rays of a tanning bad, but let me tell you! IT HURT! I felt sick because of it! So i googled how to sooth sunburn, and i read what different people said and decided to soak in a cool/lukewarm bath with Oatmeal(Put oat meal in a clean sock and secure the top) a couple tea bags (green or black) a generous amount of Vit E oil, and some milk… OH. MY. WORD. The burning immediately STOPPED! and since then i have not had NEAR as much pain as i did last night BEFORE my bath. So i would encourage anyone with extreme sunburn to soak in a lukewarm/cool bath with this stuff…IT WORKS!!!!

    Kate wrote on May 30th, 2013
  12. I use vinegar in a spray bottle to stops the pain.Mix some in your lotion about 1/3 its helps me I burn very easy

    Margarita wrote on June 2nd, 2013
  13. I have used lavender essential oil and aloe vera and love them both. I’ve also used peppermint to help cool the burn and that works wonders as well!

    Sarah Johnson wrote on June 13th, 2013
  14. I was about to give up because I don’t have any of these (yes my milk bottle is empty) and then I saw coconut. The only remedy close at hand, yet I’m allergic to it. Thanks for the post anyways!

    Gabriela wrote on June 17th, 2013
  15. I am a red head and very fair skinned. I have had a lot sunburns especially as a kid.
    This remedy lessens the burn and the pain everytime. But it must be done the first day of the burn.
    Before going to be…..
    Make a paste of baking soda & vinegar. Rub all over the burn. Let it sit 10-15 minutes until its relatively dry. Wash off.
    Liberally apply Baby Magic lotion. Must be the name brand.
    The severity & heat of the burn will be considerably lessened.
    Continue to apply Baby Magic lotion over the days you have the burn.

    mary wrote on June 20th, 2013
  16. Ok folks, Here I sit with some very red skin, not blistered, I was out with my awesome wife Kayaking, nice sunny day, but after 3 hours of enjoying the float on the river I got home to some very hot & burning legs. So I tried the store version of sunburn relief & and pain reliever,soothed some but the pain is so bad and my legs are swollen that I can’t stand still,,seriously walking feels better.Nowway back when I was a kid my dad went fishing with my uncles, we are Cherokee by the way, he did’nt think of getting sunburn but he did and he blistered. My great grandmother laid him on the dinning table and put a towel on his back and poured straight vinegar till the towel was soaked and he spent the night laying there soaked in vinegar and the next day he was up and healing within a few days he seemed like he never got burned,,so you know what I am doing right now, sitting up with my legs wrapped in a towel soaked in vinegar.. most the pain is gone. Good luck to all of you….

    Bill K wrote on June 30th, 2013
  17. Ozone Therapy Products are much more powerful and work faster than aloe vera. Especially ozonated Coconut and jojoba oil.

    christina wrote on August 7th, 2013
  18. I have a sunburn and all I know is it f#$%ing hurts

    Cayla wrote on August 19th, 2013
  19. I have always used aloe with good results, but someone told me to use coconut oil for this recent sunburn. I was amazed. the pain was almost completely removed and I didn’t blister. I was cherry red and hurting, but soon after the coconut oil, I was relieved. I got up in the middle of the night and reapplied. It did the trick.

    Dell Funk wrote on June 13th, 2014
  20. I always use extra virgin olive oil. It takes the sting out in a few hours if you don’t have anything else. It’s easy to put on and remove(:

    Brandy wrote on June 28th, 2014
  21. JUST got back from the beach and my upper back is burned-ugh! The crazy thing is I didn’t burn anywhere else, I did put some of my daughter’s sunblock real quick on my face and chest. And I don’t tend to get any color on my legs.

    So now I am on fire. The only thing I have on hand is coconut oil so we’ll see, I feel the heat being pulled out of me, but I must try the vinegar. When we were kids my mom used to put homemade yogurt or regular yogurt on us that also soothed the sunburns.

    What about drinking Green Tea internally? I am freaking out now because I had a mole that I never went to get checked out that my doctor said it is proooobably ok but wanted me to go in to see a dermatology anyways just to “double check”. And here I am burning my back again in that same spot. I am not so much concerned with the pain but the after effects with the risk of skin cancer now and all.

    Chi City Mom wrote on July 19th, 2014

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