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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!