Oops, You Got Sunburnt—Here's What to Do Now

Everything you need to know about reducing that painful red.

sunburn care

photography by PHUONG NGUYEN


It’s all fun and games, enjoying the long holiday weekend, until, ouch, a sunburn snuck up on you. Don’t beat yourself up, it happens. But there are steps to take ASAP; New York City dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman tells us exactly what to do next.  

What should you do immediately when you realize you're sunburnt?

Don’t panic, just remember these steps: rinse with cool/lukewarm water (if it’s your whole body, consider a diluted apple cider vinegar bath). Then load up on antioxidants to neutralize the free radical exposure, and follow with Bio-Oil (for body) or Elizabeth Arden Advanced Ceramide Capsules (for face) because it’s packed with vitamins A and E, which works with the skin to promote cell regeneration. Oral NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen (if not allergic or contraindicated) will help minimize inflammation & pain.

You don’t want to do more damage to the skin by exposing it to the sun more, so avoid re-exposure at all costs. Preventative care is key, so keep applying SPF throughout the day.  

What about makeup over a burn?  

Extremely burned skin is damaged and needs time to heal. Your skin is in a vulnerable state, stay away from any makeup, especially glittery products or physical exfoliation, that would cause damage to your weakened skin barrier. Applying makeup, especially if it has chemicals and irritants, can cause more inflammation to the skin.

You want your skin to heal properly and quickly, so it is more important to focus on products that soothe and combat damage. In addition, applying makeup can be painful since the area is more sensitive than normal and you are aggravating an area that needs to heal.

If you must use a bit of makeup, I like Cover FX Custom Drops or the Mineral Compacts.

What should you do to help heal the skin quickly when it starts peeling?  

It is tempting to want to peel off your skin thinking it eventually comes off anyway, but you can risk getting an infection if you expose the skin underneath before it’s ready. Instead provide an environment for the skin to heal—moisturize and seal with lotion.  

(Ed note: This is an especially good time to be using a lotion without parabens, sulfates, and artificial scents due to the skin’s sensitivity. Pai’s Calendula Calming Body Cream would be perfect, especially because calendula is anti-inflammatory and very calming.)

Tell us the truth: Is one sunburn really bad for your skin long-term?

The best thing you can do for your skin is to protect it—from the sun, from pollution, from environmental assaults. Studies show that suffering one or more blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chances of developing potentially deadly melanoma later in life. My patients often associate a sunburn as an immediate reaction, but damage from the sun occurs over a lifetime and can cause wrinkles, sagging, and even melanoma.  

Prevention for next time: Remind us how much sunscreen we should be slathering on?  

If you are out in the sun, you need to reapply every two hours, more often if you are in the water or sweating. For the face, use a nickel-size amount that covers your face and a quarter-size amount for your neck and decollate.

Based on the Consumer Reports study that showed a number of sunscreens don’t even live up to their SPF. The idea behind a mineral/physical blocker is to provide a layer that protects by deflecting and scattering UV rays. However if the product is not applied generously and in all places, then UV light can get between the molecules.

Settle the battle: Mineral v. Chemical. What's your preference and SPF strength recommendation?

Mineral sunscreens, also called physical blockers, contain active mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which work by sitting on top of the skin to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. Mineral is great for people with sensitive, acneic, and/or rosacea skin.

Also for children: the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends broad spectrum products with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for sensitive areas such as nose, cheeks, tops of the ears and shoulders. And, remember: The American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SPF of 30 or higher.

A mineral sunscreen tint like Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart SPF 50 provides protection from both the sun and pollutants. The formula contains antioxidants, including idebenone, to protect skin against free radicals.  

Chemical sunscreens are absorbed by the skin to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. They contain UVB absorbing chemicals, and more recently contain UVA absorbers as well. To make sure you’re adequately protected, I always advise my patients to apply a layer of chemical sunscreen 30 minutes before heading out into the sun.

These carbon-based compounds (oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone) create a chemical reaction that changes UV rays into heat, then releasing the heat. Why 30 minutes beforehand application? It takes up to 30 minutes to activate so if you are waiting until you are outside to apply it, you risk being unprotected in the sun for up to half an hour. That might not sound like a lot, but sun damage adds up quickly, and some people can get a sunburn within that activation waiting time.

Typically, I tell my patients to use about one ounce of product (depending on body shape and size) to cover up exposed skin.  If you don’t have 30 minutes waiting time, apply a mineral sunscreen on top of the chemical SPF.

For chemical protection, try out Cover FX Clear Cover Invisible Sunscreen, which goes on clear making it great for all skin tones and types, even men. 

I love shopping at K-beauty store and sites and one product that they do very well (in addition to masks) is sun care products that are able to be readily absorbed by the skin. Earth’s Recipe Water Sun Gel is a super hydrating richly textured sun gel (combination lotion and gel) that provides SPF 50+ broad spectrum protection.

This story is part of our special 100 Days of Summer series. You can find more tips and fun ideas here.


Published on July 02, 2017 - 8:20am EDT

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